The Canadian province of Ontario is in the midst of a fierce labor struggle the likes of which has not been seen in decades. On Thursday, November 3, Ontario Premier Doug Ford signed Bill 28 (the “Keeping Students in Class Act”) into law, making it illegal for education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) to go on strike.
The next day, 55,000 education workers walked off the job in defiance of the bill, risking a C$4,000 fine. These workers, primarily janitors, early childhood educators, librarians and other support staff, are demanding a C$3.25 wage increase, overtime pay, extended benefits and 30 minutes of preparation time per day.
The mood at Friday’s demonstration was combative. It is clear that after a decade of near stagnant wages and runaway inflation, education workers are ready to fight for their livelihoods. The average education worker in Ontario earns only C$39,000 a year. 51% have a second job and 27% have had to reduce their diet. A teaching assistant said left voice that she and her husband cannot pay their mortgage. At a time when the province is running a surplus, there’s no reason it can’t raise wages to match inflation.
The political nature of the strike made it particularly urgent, as the implementation of Bill 28 would set a precedent for the preventive crushing of strikes with the stroke of a pen. Canadian governments, including Justin Trudeau’s federal government, are happy to use back-to-work legislation to end strikes, but Bill 28 went further by trying to stop the strike before it even happened. she doesn’t start. It was such an excess that Ford had to invoke the “notwithstanding clause,” a rarely used legal tool that allows governments to circumvent the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The struggle of education workers has drawn solidarity from across the province, with countless unions – from the public and private sectors – joining CUPE-OSBCU on the picket lines. In a poll, 62% of Ontarians say the Ford government is responsible for the impasse. Calls for a general strike are increasing, including within the union leadership.
The mere talk of a general strike led Doug Ford to back down on Bill 28, offering to rescind the bill if CUPE-OSBCU calls off the strike. On Monday, November 7, at a press conference where many Ontario labor leaders were expecting a general strike, they accepted Ford’s offer, announcing that picket lines would be removed and classes would resume on Tuesday.
Defeating Bill 28 was a victory for the working class and a demonstration of how even the whiff of a general strike can set the ruling class back. However, Bill 28 was essentially defeated by a labor truce: “I won’t use my gun if you don’t use yours.” Instead of relying on the power of the working class on the streets, the union leadership asked its members to return to work without a contract and to trust them in the bargaining room.
The time to strike is when the iron is hot, and Monday’s press conference would have been the perfect time to turn the strike into a generation-defining general strike. All workers are feeling the tightening of inflation and the broadening of the strike to include demands such as a ban on the use of back-to-work legislation, the repeal of wage-limiting bills like the Bill 124 and raising the minimum wage could have united workers across the province. There is always the possibility of a strike later, but there is no guarantee that the momentum will continue after weeks or months of bargaining.
Union leaders celebrated, but Ford famous too. He avoided the worst-case scenario without making any concessions on wages or benefits. He realized that Bill 28 was a strategic mistake, in that it forced CUPE-OSBCU into a position where they had to massively escalate or retreat in humiliation. Neither side wanted a general strike, so Ford’s offer to quash Bill 28 allowed the union leadership to end the strike while saving face.
Workers deserve reps who can see through these chilling tactics and aren’t afraid to take the gloves off if necessary. Without such leadership, working people can only expect our standard of living to decline while Ford and his friends get richer.