Ontario Teachers Face Austerity Drive

Against the Current, No. 178, September/October 2015

Peter Brogan

ALTHOUGH CONDITIONS FOR teachers and students in Ontario, and Canada more broadly, remain far better than they are for their counterparts in the United States, concessionary austerity demands similar to those being more aggressively advanced in the United States have been rolled out in one guise or another across Canada too.

Compared to the destructive “reforms” that have been dismantling and privatizing schools and undermining teacher professionalism and union power across U.S. school districts, often with the collaboration of teacher unions, neoliberal reforms in Ontario would appear a rather modest affair — in part because of the opposition of education workers’ unions — but they pose no less of a danger to working people’s lives.

Neoliberal reforms began to take hold in Ontario beginning in the 1980s, and in the  public education realm have intensified since by way of an increased focus on standardized testing and a general shift away from schooling as a mechanism for preparing “good” citizens to one preparing workers for a deeply polarized economy.

Teachers, like other public employees, have been confronting economic austerity in Ontario since 2008, including a wage freeze for the past four years. Anti-labor legislation like Bill 115, passed in 2013, significantly curtails the democratic collective bargaining rights of teachers by restricting their ability to strike and allowing the provincial government to impose concessions.

As the new president of the Ontario Catholic School Teachers Association (OECTA), Ann Hawkins observed in the Huffington Post (7/21/15), “It’s hard to relax when you don’t know the status of your employment, or what kind of conditions you’ll find when you return to the office.”

Confrontations Pending

As summer vacation was coming to a close Ontario public and Catholic teachers have been without contracts for over a year. But since May, high school and elementary teachers across the province have taken action.

The Elementary Teacher Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and grade 9 and 10 high school teachers in the province have strategically withdrawn their work by refusing to prepare for or administer provincially mandated tests.

As of July 20th all public high school teachers have refused to participate in non-compensated extracurricular activities. Other job actions that might be rolled out this fall include: no parent-teacher nights or interviews, no parent volunteers, no extra help for students, and no bulletin boards.

Although high school, elementary and Catholic school teachers are represented by different unions, and are ostensibly in separate negotiations with both their local school boards and Premier Kathleen Wynn’s Liberal provincial government — which likes to pose as teacher-friendly until the chips are down — the fall will likely see an escalation of job actions, up to and including full-fledged strikes.(1)

Moreover, thousands of support staff, most of whom are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), are also in stalled negotiations and poised to take action in September. Beyond wages, at stake in these negotiations are issues concerning class size, intensification of work (the major issue for support staff), and the autonomy of teachers to have control over the work they do in their classrooms.

These conditions would seem to be ripe for teacher unions, parents and communities to collaborate in a massive struggle to improve public education. Instead, sadly, we are unlikely to see teacher union actions that would join forces and build membership-driven and community public organizing.

Over the past decade many benefits that teachers won through past struggles have been ripped out of their contracts. In particular this has resulted in erosion in the amount of time that teachers have for class preparation. Local school boards now claim that they can no longer afford to compensate teachers for the prep time and professional development days. In the course of a typical school day teachers now have little opportunity to complete all of the various tasks required of them.

Moreover, sick days and their accumulation have been a primary target in recent years, with media and politicians turning them into a shameful and undeserved benefit enjoyed by teachers and other public sector workers. (In most jurisdictions the elimination of cumulative sick days has led to teachers taking most, if not all of their days immediately. This has proven to provide little, if any, savings for local school boards.)

“I am fighting for teachers’ working conditions which equates to students’ learning conditions,” explains one OECTA member who teaches grade 4 in Toronto. “Class sizes, special education cuts, large FDK [full day kindergarten] classes with less support,” she says, “should raise alarm for any parent. For parents of older children, the deletion of fair hiring practices should be of grave concern. I am fighting for maintaining and improving the quality education that Ontario is known for throughout the world.”(2)

To emphasize the passionate pleas of teachers, salary hasn’t even been broached at the central bargaining table.

Of similar importance for Ontario teachers are pressures being put on them by the Liberal government to remove all class size language from their collective agreements, an immediate facing elementary teachers. In the absence of class size provisions in collective agreements, class sizes will increase and the quality of each individual student’s learning experience will necessarily diminish.

Lastly, Ontario teachers are fighting to achieve fair and transparent hiring and staffing procedures. Recent legislation added standardization and objectivity to selection practices. Now management has demanded the deletion of all hiring and staffing language from all collective agreements and wants relevant legislation repealed.

Ontario teachers’ job actions, especially against Bill 115, have largely been viewed by the public as disruptive and carried out by teachers for selfish reasons. Yet, as OECTA’s Hawkins points out, “Many of the bargaining demands being made by the provincial government and their elected trustees would result in major disruptions to the classroom experience and the quality of education in Ontario.”

Make no mistake, Ontario teachers are fighting against the same neoliberal assault on public education that confronts teachers in the United States and around the world. Of paramount importance in this round of negotiation, for instance, is their fight to preserve the ability to prioritize and self-direct the work teachers do when not instructing students.

Professional autonomy, the life force of pride and creativity, has been at the center of teachers’ struggles since the inception of public schooling. At the same time, it is vital that teacher unions recognize that control over one’s work is something that most workers in a capitalist economy do not possess. To the extent that certain groups of workers have managed to win this through past struggles, in order to maintain or expand it they will need to enlarge the demand for greater control of the labor process into a class demand for all workers.

Education Deform

Between 1990 and 1995 teachers’ wages were cut through unpaid furlough days. This was under the provincial government of Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party (NDP), leading to its electoral debacle in 1995.

But things would get far worse when the Conservatives’ Mike Harris became Premier and immediately began rolling back many of the protections workers had enjoyed. Ontario primary and secondary schools would see a number of draconian changes, affecting funding, curriculum and laws governing teacher unions.

As Hewitt-White writes in Alternate Routes (Volume 26, 2015), “These changes brought technocratic discourses of markets and efficiency to bear on education, and created a public climate hostile to teachers. Prominent features of Ontario students’ contemporary experience come from that era. For instance, the Grades 3, 6 9 and 10 standardized tests, the four-year high school curriculum (as opposed to the five years that existed previously), and a heavy emphasis on job readiness across the curriculum.”

School principals and vice-principals were removed from the teachers’ unions and school boards were amalgamated. As funding for education shifted away from local taxes to the provincial government taking responsibility for both raising and directing education finances, local school boards were stripped of their financial autonomy.

Money is now allocated based on the number of students instead of per school, which has effectively compelled boards to balance their budgets each year by cutting jobs and programs.

Similar to education deform talk in the United States, programs like Teach for Canada have been rolled out in order to address the supposed decline of student achievement, especially students of color and the poor who are stuck in a public school system in crisis. (Teach for Canada is specifically designed for First Nations communities in the north.)

The Harris’ Conservatives’ “Common Sense Revolution,” a full frontal assault on organized labor, sparked the rolling one day strike — the Ontario Days of Action in 1995. In contrast, the present Liberal government has opted for a strategy that has imposed austerity and weakened labor’s ability to fight by imposing cuts and wage freezes on select sectors at different times, what might better be understood as a slow war of attrition.

In those few cases where unions have taken strike action, they have been conducted in an extremely fragmented manner in which workers face off against their employers one at a time. As Kyle Bailey argues in a forthcoming article on the strikes at York University and the University of Toronto, “This fragmentation, which is intrinsic to neoliberal capitalism, can only be successfully confronted with real (as opposed to token) solidarity on the part of unions and the wider anti-austerity movement.”

Guelph elementary teacher Doug Cook (Guelph Mercury 7/30/15) aptly describes the Ontario Liberal government of Kathleen Wynn as having a three-pronged approach to pushing teachers’ unions to accept austerity: First, act like you are confused about why the unions are upset, walking away from the table and taking action. Second, simply wait out the chaos that ensues from not sending report cards home. And third, use legislation to order teachers back to work and impose whatever conditions you want on them, giving up all pretenses to a democratic process of collective bargaining.

As Cook notes, this approach “denies basic tenets of democracy (and) forces compliance. In reality, front line workers like teachers should contribute to the determination of their working conditions — they add real value to the enterprise. And subjugation breeds discontent.”

How to Fight the Power?

So long as the government can use its inherent power over public sector employees, it does not have to negotiate in earnest. And it is this new reality that Ontario teacher unions have still not come to fully grasp.

At the least, perhaps with the exception of the elementary teachers’ unions, they’ve not yet given any indication that they understand these conditions in order to develop an adequate mobilization and political strategy, rather than simply relying on their political relationships with the Liberal Party or disruptive actions that are not well understood or evenly implemented by their memberships.

Hence, while teachers in Ontario have engaged in similiar work-to-rule actions against Bill 115, they have not been done with consideration for how parents and the public will react.

While some teachers are convinced that the public and even their students’ parents will never support them, it is not entirely clear what kind of support they would receive if their unions actually tried to genuinely engage communities about the issues at stake and how kids are affected by what the government is doing.

Similarly, it is important to remember that work-to-rule as a strategy is hard on everyone. As one high school teacher put it:

“If work to rule takes place teachers will still do the basic requirements of their jobs but a lot of the extra things that students and parents really benefit from will be missing (hopefully only for a short period of time). Don’t think for a second that the teachers aren’t stressed about this too — most of the prep work and planning I do after school, at home and on the weekends makes me feel confident to go into the classroom and meet the needs of the students. Extracurricular activities help to create a more positive environment and help to build a rapport with students and everyone, including teachers, do benefit from that.

“However, there is a time when a line must be drawn. Teachers have been without a contract for a year, have made numerous attempts to enter into meaningful negotiations and the government/trustees are not negotiating fairly. As much as students and parents may get angry with teachers over job action they should also become familiar with the issues and raise concerns with their MPP [member of provincial parliament] and school board trustees.” (Huffington Post, 7/21/15)

Directors of education across the province received a note saying that the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) “will not be sending assessment materials at this time to any schools that are experiencing labor action.” This includes all elementary schools in the English-language public system and secondary schools in Durham, Peel and Sudbury, where teachers were on strike until forced back to work on May 27, and in Ottawa and Halton.

Will being unable to take these tests hurt students? Or, as the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Sam Hammond suggests, now that teachers don’t have to prepare students for (and administer) these tests, perhaps the time they spend in the classroom might be put to better use by unleashing “a lot of creativity, a lot of imagination, a lot of spontaneous teaching that goes on” when not doing test preparation.

The union also contends that the roughly $30 million annual cost of the EQAO tests could be better spent providing services directly to students.

Toronto-based advocacy group Education Action has long argued that the increased usage of standardized testing in Ontario is unhelpful in understanding how children are learning because of their inherent structural limitations: they show answers, but cannot explain how a student answered a math problem. Literacy tests evaluate reading comprehension skills using non-fiction text passages, but there is little capacity to measure critical thinking or creativity.

As one Toronto high school English teacher notes, “All of this time spent on test prep has meant that we have not had time in the past two years to properly focus on cross-curricular literacy. Our teachers are not available to put energy into collaboration to find ways to promote real literacy gains in all subjects because they give their time to prepping for the test instead.”

This is a powerful message that many parents would likely rally behind, if more directly engaged by teachers and their unions to do so.

What EQAO tests do provide, however, is a simple number that can be used for political purposes, as for example when the right-wing Fraser Institute assesses the totality of Ontario’s education system. Realtors in the Greater Toronto Area also increasingly use these scores to drive up the prices of homes within the catchment areas of supposedly desirable schools.

While Ontario’s tests are, at this point, for lower stakes and less arduous than in many U.S. states, the provincial government’s demand in labor negotiations with teachers for more centralized control of diagnostic testing of students could signal an intention to deepen the role of standardized testing.

Unlike other work-to-rule actions in recent years, the interruption of standardized tests did not generate much public outrage. Hopefully, the teacher unions who are now in the process of, or preparing to, escalate their tactics will learn from the experience with these actions against testing.

Unfortunately, without a dramatic upsurge amongst rank-and-file teachers we are not likely to see the organization of mass community meetings and actions, but a repeat of widely unpopular disruptive job actions. Meanwhile the union officialdom continues to pursue a backdoor strategy with the Liberal government in the hopes that while their members blow off steam they are able to mediate some of the worst concessions being demanded of them.

As Caitlin Hewitt-White pointed out with respect to the OSSTF’s confusing strike strategy against Bill 115, Ontario’s teacher unions operate as if their members should only be “passive recipients of knowledge and strategy crafted by the leadership.” While  members clearly want to fight austerity and anti-labor laws, education unions in Ontario have yet to create the structures and cultures for membership engagement that are needed to effectively challenge the Liberal government in the current negotiations  much less lead a broader grassroots movement for education justice.

Yet, hope remains that rank-and-file teachers will continue to mobilize actions, and through such organizing also transform their unions into organizations capable of better taking up this fight.


  1. New bargaining legislation sets out two levels of contract talks, with provincial negotiations covering big-money items such as class size and salary, and with local items up to individual boards and union districts to settle. Under new provincial bargaining legislation, big items like workload and salary must be hammered out at central talks, leaving non-monetary items to local talks.
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  2. Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotations from teachers are from interviews done with the author in June and July 2015.
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September-October 2015, ATC 178