Canadian Union of Public Employees rally shows union leaders have no strategy for education workers to beat Ford

Fifty-five thousand education support workers are on a collision course with Ontario’s far-right Progressive Conservative government. Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have pledged for all intents and purposes to preemptively ban a strike that could begin as early as Thursday, November 3. Custodians, librarians, early childhood educators and administrative staff, who are members of the Ontario Council of Unions (OSBCU) School Board, have voted overwhelmingly in favor of strike action to cancel more than one decade of real wage cuts, secure anti-inflationary wage increases and reverse years of education cuts.

The rally organized by the OSBCU in conjunction with its parent union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), on Saturday, October 22, highlighted that in the face of a direct political struggle to secure their demands, support workers Basic education will find no way forward if the union bureaucracy keeps control of their fight. The event, overseen by OSBCU Chief Negotiator Laura Walton and CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn, was framed entirely as a creeping appeal to far-right Thatcherite conservatives gathered at the Convention Center in Toronto. The handful of rank-and-file workers and the strong contingent of union bureaucrats who participated were treated to little more than a dance party.

Ontario school support staff protesting outside the Progressive Conservative Conference, October 22, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The general indifference felt by the vast majority of support workers in the face of this union coup was illustrated by the fact that OSBCU and CUPE bureaucrats succeeded in mobilizing a dismal 150 to 200 people, including several union officials. This is despite the fact that the protest took place in Toronto, where CUPE Local 4400, the OSBCU’s largest local, alone has 12,000 members. CUPE is Canada’s largest national union with over 700,000 members.

Comments made by workers during discussions with World Socialist Website the journalists demonstrated that the catastrophic turnout had nothing to do with the workers’ unpreparedness to fight. On the contrary, workers are outraged by the devastating impact of decades of austerity, which has ravaged the public education system, and the humiliating struggle to make ends meet despite the provision of an essential public service. However, most are deeply skeptical, despite the OSBCU leadership’s rhetorical bluster, about the intention to wage a fight against Ford and stage a massive challenge to back-to-work legislation. Remembering well Walton’s eleventh-hour sale of an overwhelming strike vote in 2019, when she agreed to the application of Ford’s hated 1% annual salary cap just hours before the workers left, the support workers see no point in participating in empty gestures designed to let off steam and pave the way for a massive reduction in wages in real terms for the lowest paid workers in the education sector.

A veteran Toronto teacher’s aide detailed the financial hardships endured by education support workers for decades. The majority of OSBCU members earn less than $39,000 a year, and more than half work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

“My salary has hardly changed in 10 years,” she said. “With inflation, everything goes up. My pension does not increase with the cost of living. Something has to give at some point.

A Halton Region warden echoed those sentiments, saying he had been employed at his school board for “13 years, and never got a decent raise. Just 1 percent. When you look at inflation, it’s at 7% right now. I see management getting raises every year, and us on the front line are like, basically, ‘Who cares? Show up and do your job. That’s not true.”

Three early childhood educators from Toronto spoke about the emotional and psychological impact their work has had on them and their colleagues.

One began, “We have a lot of members who can’t go home well at night because they’re so tired and stressed from working so hard. They are not recognized and they are not properly paid for it.

The discussion also turned to the Ford government’s cynical claims of concern for children as justification for its threats to criminalize labor action. The widely hated Minister of Education, Lecce, has repeatedly claimed that children have “the right to learn… from September to June”.

“One thing I have to struggle with,” said one of the early childhood educators, “is that I am against using children with special needs as bargaining chips. But right now we are not giving them the support they need in the form of adequate staff. We cannot support a child with the best he needs. There is no support. It’s frustrating.”

A child and youth worker who attended the protest with her partner and school-aged son spoke forcefully about the devastating impact that decades of budget cuts and nearly three years of the COVID-19 pandemic have had have had on children’s safety and school performance.

She pointed out that her son, who is considered a pupil with special needs, does not have the necessary support from an educational assistant, despite the family filing numerous appeals for him to receive one.

“We don’t have security at school anymore, because we don’t have staff,” she said. “We have no staff to keep the children safe or to protect us.

“We have at least 100 more children in our school than last year, many of whom have social or emotional needs. We manage the toilets. We manage to feed them. So I’m left with managing a child with medical needs and managing children with behavioral needs, all at the same time. »

An office administrator echoed those sentiments, saying, “I’m in student services and have to help cover the main office, attendance and everything else. So when I try to replace someone else’s work for half a day, it really takes away from what I can give students at my work for the other half of the day. I just can’t do a job and a half or two jobs. It is not possible.”

The reality expressed in these interviews would be immediately recognized by the 200,000 Ontario teachers currently working without contracts and millions of workers working in the public and private sectors under dangerous conditions and for wages that do not keep pace with inflation. But Walton, Hahn and Co. are determined above all to ensure that education support workers remain isolated from this potential wave of popular support. What they want to avoid at all costs is the emergence of a mass movement in defense of public education and workers’ right to strike that would defy Ford’s threats and secure substantial wage increases. for support workers, and billions of dollars in investments for the starving public education budget. Indeed, such a move would clash with the union bureaucrats’ lucrative partnerships with government and the state apparatus through the so-called labor relations system, and their full support for the Liberal-New Government alliance. Democratic Party at the federal level, which is based on war abroad and the imposition of austerity on workers at home.

Speaking at the rally, Walton’s main message was a call for Ford for a “fair deal” at the bargaining table. Hahn made a similar note, commenting that the workers are “pushing…to convince the government that what they need to do is change their offer.”

These calls will fall on deaf ears. The urgent task facing education support workers now is to establish a network of rank-and-file committees to advance their struggle on diametrically opposed grounds. Instead of making desperate pleas for Ford and Lecce to be ‘fair’ under the anti-worker collective bargaining system, workers should fight to popularize their struggle in schools, neighborhoods and on the streets. other workplaces. Demonstrations, information pickets and meetings should be organized to explain to teachers, parents of students and workers from all economic sectors why the fight of education support workers for an end to poverty wages and austerity budgets for public education is a fight that deserves the support of the entire working class. In this way, support workers can play a powerful role in mobilizing a mass movement of workers capable of defying the threats of the Ford government and reorganizing society’s vast resources to meet social needs, such as the public education and health care, rather than private profit.

This fight is led by the Ontario Education Workers Rank and File Committee (OEWRFC), which brings together teachers, education support staff and other workers from across the province. OEWRFC is affiliated with the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees in recognition that the success of a fight against austerity and wage reduction in Ontario depends on education workers organizing a common struggle with their colleagues across Canada and internationally. We urge all education workers who want to take this fight forward to contact OEWRFC at [email protected] or fill out the form below.