Photo: Protesting workers in Ontario. Credit: Olena Lyubchenko
Fifty-five thousand education workers in the Canadian province of Ontario took to the streets and galvanized the province’s working class into struggle, securing a major win. The workers were early childhood educators, librarians, and other education workers — all members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, one of the largest public sector unions in Ontario.
CUPE, which has been in negotiations with the right-wing government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford for months, went on strike last week. CUPE workers are the lowest paid education workers in the province, with an average salary of 29,000 USD a year. Workers have been demanding a living wage, with an 11.5% wage increase that would make it possible for workers to survive on the salary of one job. The Ford government’s counter offers have been disrespectfully low. Their first counter offer was a raise of just 1.5%!
This strike occurs in the context of an extremely conservative, anti-worker government in Ontario. Aminah Sheikh, a union organizer based in Ontario and Minneapolis, said, “As an organizer, I saw this anti-worker sentiment as we have been living through a pandemic of two years, while the government kept punching us, kicking workers. None of the laws benefited workers. Nothing helped. There was no resolution around the rising cost of living, or the housing crisis. It’s the same situation across the province and the world.” CUPE workers are 70% women, and many workers have been struggling to survive, using food banks and moving back in with family members to make ends meet.
While the negotiations have been dragging on, the match that lit the fire of struggle in Ontario was when Premier Ford’s government proposed and passed Bill 28 on Nov. 3 in response to the union demanding fair wages. Bill 28 was framed by the government as an act to “keep students in class,” but in reality, it was not a law for students — it was a law designed to intimidate and threaten workers. Bill 28 stripped the education workers of the right to strike, making their strike “illegal,” and forced them to accept a new 3-year contract, overriding the Canadian Charter of Rights. To add insult to injury, the bill would fine every striking worker $4,000 a day!
The reaction was immediate. Schools closed without the workers to staff them, with 2.1 million students out of school. But in contrast to the negative reaction expected by the conservative government, says Sheikh, “It backfired. What happened over those 24 hours, community and parents, working people, said that we can’t have our kids at home and 39,000 [CAD] is just not enough. Working people were ready for a fight.”
The community rallied to support the workers, and many other workers in the province expressed their solidarity. CUPE workers were joined on the picket line outside of the conservative government by the Ontario Public Service Union, another union of education workers. The Amalgamated Trade Union workers, which was also in bargaining with the government, pulled out their workers on Monday. Unions across Ontario pledged and donated to the workers’ strike fund, with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation offering $1 million, and CUPE itself was ready to dip into its savings.
A general strike was seriously on the horizon, as many workers saw Bill 28 opening the door for greatly intensified attacks on workers’ basic rights. Private and public sector workers were ready to stand alongside CUPE, with the Ontario Federation of Labor, a collaboration of private sector, public sector, and trade unions, were threatening to defy the unjust laws and carry out a general strike. The education workers themselves were using words like “fight” and “war” to describe their struggle, and as Sheikh notes, “What is left to lose? People can’t afford anything, every law that is created is about punishing workers, so you reach a point where your only option is to fight. And there is something about the strike that gives you so much morale — to bring dinner, come together, stand outside, support each other …everything is about helping each other in the fight, in the war. And honestly, Ford didn’t realize that the unions were ready to go.”
After only one day of the strike, Premier Ford came back from the weekend on Monday ready to walk back Bill 28. The strike ended with workers returning to work on Tuesday, Nov. 8 and celebrating their quick and well-won victory over the right-wing, anti-worker bill. Sheikh concludes, “This is a victory. We see the growing populist right-wing movements, and Brown and Black people, average people are gravitating towards that. It is demoralizing. But with this victory, this is what the union is about; to defend, teach, educate. To show that you are with us — it doesn’t matter what color, what party. It shows who the real enemy is, and it shows their face clearly too. This shows that the government, the employers — these people are bad people. With the libertarian forces in Canada, there is a lot of misinformation, and the Democrats don’t say anything. In fact, the liberal government in the past has also put a bill through to freeze education worker salaries and end potentially job actions. But a strike puts people back into real life, on the ground.”
While the CUPE workers will return to the bargaining table, they do so with a victory under their belt and heightened consciousness. Even as the government continues to create laws that will protect the capitalist class and bust unions, the people will continue to organize, to struggle, and to win for the working class!