In response to new union-busting legislation introduced by Ontario's Conservative provincial government, 55,000 education workers — members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — walked off the job on November 4. They were joined by 8000 Ontario Public Service Employees Union members, who walked out in a massive show of solidarity.
Wildcat actions were held at 126 locations, many outside MP’s offices, since the government is the employer in this case.
While these are technically illegal strike actions, some have pointed out that the real illegality rests with the government in attempting to subvert CUPE members’ right to take legal strike action during a bargaining period.
The provincial government’s new industrial legislation suspends fundamental human rights by invoking the “notwithstanding clause” to remove parts of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is clearly aimed at preemptive strike-breaking and crushing Ontario’s union movement more broadly.
Strikers face potential fines of CA$4000 a day and $500,000 a day for the union.
An estimated 10,000 people demonstrated at Queen’s Park, where the provincial parliament is located, in Toronto, on November 4.
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) called for “Solidarity Saturday” actions in every community in the province. At the first of these, on November 5, early turnouts were impressive, including a takeover of the major downtown Toronto intersection at Dundas Square.
For some, the strike actions raise possibilities of a broader show of labour militancy and solidarity, up to and including possibilities for a general strike. For others, this mass show of defiance against unjust laws and government repression holds the promise of returning labour onto a militant footing, not constrained by the confines of legally-sanctioned negotiations.
Targeting the precarious
The CUPE education workers targeted by the government are the lowest paid in the sector, averaging only $39,000 per year. More than 70% are women.
In a CUPE survey, 51.4% reported having to work at least one additional job to make ends meet, while 91% said they have faced financial hardship because of their low wages. Every summer, 60% of these workers are laid off, with most needing unemployment insurance to survive.
Inflation and attacks on education workers’ wages and collective bargaining rights have resulted in a real wage cut of 10.7% for these workers. Pay rises from 2012‒21 amounted to only 8.8% (compounded), while inflation to the end of 2021 reached 19.5% (compounded). With inflation well over 7% in 2022, education workers are fighting to prevent a 17% real wage cut. Workers’ reasonable, necessary, and affordable wage proposal is a rise of $3.25 an hour (11.7%).
It is apparent that the Conservative government is targeting this relatively small public sector union of lower-paid workers, to set an example for other unions. The outcome of this struggle will affect workers and labour organising across the country. It provides a model for government assaults on unions and shows a move towards open authoritarianism in dealing with the working class, even in basic activities like collective bargaining.
Notably, following passage of the legislation, several unions committed to walking out on November 4, in solidarity with CUPE members. Solidarity strikes are illegal and have been uncommon recently — but are so important for working-class resistance.
There is reason for optimism that solidarity strikes could provide broad support for education workers. A poll by Abacus Data, on the first day of walkouts, found a majority in Ontario would support other unions walking out to protest the provincial government’s suspension of human rights. Only one-third would not support — roughly equivalent to the voter base on which Ontario’s Conservative government was elected.
OPSEU announced on November 3 that its education-worker members would also walk off the job in solidarity with their CUPE colleagues. In a public statement it said: “Bill 28 isn’t just an attack on education workers’ collective bargaining rights, it is an attack on all workers’ rights. We have 8000 education workers in our union. If you all walk out together on Friday, there is safety in numbers. Talk to your colleagues. Make plans with them to attend a nearby CUPE rally together.”
Crucially, they backed it up by assuring members that the union would cover any fines levied by the government: “Your union will have your back. You will not have to pay any fines. And you will have the full force of OPSEU/SEFPO behind you should your employer attempt to enact any discipline.”
Sadly, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which are in negotiations of their own with the government, declined to walk out in solidarity with CUPE members on November 4. Instead, they took the weak approach of encouraging their members to join CUPE picket lines — before and after work — while saying they would continue the hopeless path of lobbying the government.
That other education workers unions did not walk out in solidarity with their colleagues — many of whom work next to them in the same workplaces — really points to the limits of craft unionism (organising according to job titles). It shows the need for industrial unionism models, where all workers in the same workplace and same industry organise together within the same union.
The current strike, under illegalised conditions, has raised a very real prospect of a general strike in Ontario. This was heightened with news on the evening of November 4 that GO Transit workers, operating the bus and train networks that serve Metro Toronto and surrounding areas throughout southern Ontario could go on strike against their employer, Metrolinx, on November 7.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1587, which represents 2,200 station attendants, bus operators, maintenance workers, transit safety officers, and office personnel, announced that 81% of its members voted against the latest management offer. Their main issue is contracting out.
CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn addressed general strike issue directly, saying: “I think it is absolutely a possibility in a way I hadn’t imagined before.
“Many of us talk about the idea of a general strike as though it were a fantasy land, a lovely dream.
“But I do think that people see what is at stake, and if a government isn’t going to allow for any democratic process or any democratic debate, if they’re just gonna create legislation that is such a ridiculous hammer to hang over the heads of people, and continue to cut services ... this is the beginning of much resistance to many of the components that this government has here.”
As other workers and unions recognise the government’s aim to wreck unions, the movement will take on heightened dimensions:
“It is a movement that builds and that is what we need. We need a movement that continues to build here. That brings together communities and allies and labor and others to really talk about the kind of Ontario we want. This is not the kind of Ontario we want.”
At the November 5 Dundas Square rally, Hahn announced that strike action was only the beginning, not the end. He also reported having met with other union leaders, suggesting other unions will be joining the picket lines going forward.
The attack on CUPE is only the most recent, and aggressive, in a succession of Conservative government attempts to impose losses on government workers and cut public services.
In this regard, Hahn highlighted Bill 124 which caps wages for public service employees at 1% a year, including nurses during a health care crisis. This is part of the Conservative government’s attempts to open up the healthcare system to privatisation.
In this regard, conservative pundits have seized on the attack on education workers to push for privatisation of the school system and the introduction of private school vouchers.
Unions and strikes have not always been legal in Canada and illegal strikes and wildcats have been significant parts of the history of the labor movement.
Unions only won legal recognition, closed shops, and dues check-off in 1945, following a militant strike of autoworkers in Windsor, Ontario, in which workers famously surrounded a Ford plant with a vehicle barricade.The greatest level of strike activity in the country occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s, when many of the strikes undertaken were wildcat strikes. They were largely successful making important gains in wages, benefits and working conditions.
Some strikes even posed possibilities for radical social transformation.
In 1972, more than 200,000 Quebec public sector workers came together under a Common Front movement, in a general strike that was met with fierce police repression. In the face of this, a rank-and-file rebellion broke out that pushed the government to retreat and agree to a deal.
In 1983, the Solidarity movement in British Columbia (BC) — when teachers and support staff went out in an illegal strike — posed the prospect of a general strike before being undermined by union leadership.
Between 1995 and ‘98, organised labour initiated 11 city-wide “general strikes”, bringing together unions and community organisations to shut down cities in opposition to the right-wing austerity politics of the Mike Harris Conservative government.
More recently, teachers in BC walked out in an illegal strike, making gains while fending off an imposed contract.
Air Canada airport ground crews in Toronto and Montreal initiated a wildcat strike in 2012 against anti-strike legislation by the federal Conservative government. In 2020, Alberta healthcare workers struck illegally against proposed job cuts.
Use of the notwithstanding clause ushers in a new phase of authoritarian assaults on workers. While still unfolding, the outcome of these strike actions could put labour movements on a new plane of struggle across the country. Certainly, a defeat in Ontario would be a defeat for the labour movement, and all workers, across the country.
If anything, it will hopefully serve as a much-needed reminder that the basis of labour organising is the needs of workers, not what governments or employers deem as acceptable. Legal bargaining remains the terrain of the state and capital.
Governments have, and will, use whatever legislative mechanisms they can to break strikes and limit unions. Workers’ power is by definition a wildcat power to withhold labour on its own terms.