Workers’ anger over economic inequality and precarious work could spark broader union action

Labor disputes in Canada have drawn international attention after the Ontario government passed a law making strikes by education workers illegal and imposing fines on striking workers, citing a clause in the Canadian Charter rights and freedoms that allowed him to circumvent constitutional challenges.

After the 55,000 workers went on strike anyway, with several unions and parts of the public mobilizing against the move, the government has since promised to repeal the legislation, ending the walkout.

But these events could mark what is likely only the beginning of pronounced resistance from education workers in the coming months.

Unsettled Prior Negotiations

The effects of previous negotiations in 2019 in Ontario left many in the education sector unsettled.

Throughout the pandemic, media coverage has largely focused on student outcomes – with concerns about students’ social isolation, mental health and academic delay – and rightly so.

Read more: Mike Harris’ ‘common sense’ attack on Ontario schools is back – and so are teacher strikes

However, in recent years, education workers themselves have faced similar challenges with pandemic fatigue, limited government support and burnout.

Public opinion appears to be on the side of educators: Six in 10 Ontarians “blamed the Ford government for the ongoing labor disruption involving tens of thousands of education workers that … forced schools to close for the ‘in-person learning’, according to an Abacus Data poll conducted Nov. 4-5.

This most recent conflict may well represent the sentiments of those in today’s middle or working classes who are also angry at the effects of social austerity. These have been highlighted during the pandemic, particularly in healthcare and long-term care for the elderly.

Anger in the face of insecurity and its effects

The anger is linked to the economic insecurity of workers. According to economist Guy Standing, those who lack employment protections are increasingly frustrated with the lack of opportunity, job security, as well as the promise of social mobility.

In my own research with unemployed and underemployed teachers in Ontario, many described negatively their general feelings about work and their employment experiences. This includes the inability to find employment and expectations around unpaid work, as well as feeling a lack of community, support and career progression.

Of course, teachers are just one group of education workers. There are thousands of early childhood educators, teacher’s aides, custodial staff and others working in precarious jobs in education.

Read more: Children across Canada deserve a professional early childhood education workforce

This is not limited to school workers. Precarious forms of employment are increasingly the norm for workers in all sectors, while the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ widens.

People seen in the fog with picket signs.
Education workers seen during a protest in Milton, Ontario on November 4, 2022.

Falling behind?

Concerns about “delay” are also front and center for many workers right now.

Inflation is a pressing problem for citizens and families. Often, workers not only face rising prices for goods and services, but in a context of historical underinvestment in public services, they also often feel that inflation is even more pronounced than the numbers suggest.

For the province’s education workers, this was compounded by widely imposed public sector wage caps in 2019.

Ontario’s wage cap bill (Bill 124) remains a controversial and possibly unconstitutional law, and is currently the subject of a legal challenge.

Similarly, the Ontario government’s use of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause demonstrated another potential abuse of power — yet again seeking to set workers back even further.

Privatization program

Many also fear that the Ford government’s pandemic policies accelerated a pre-pandemic privatization agenda. For example, in the spring of 2021, the province revealed that it was considering making virtual school an option beyond the pandemic.

Education researcher Paul Bocking notes that Ontario’s introduction of e-learning courses through TVO/TFO serves to make these courses more marketable to generate international revenue.

Heavy-handed labor negotiations in this context serve to further alienate workers and voters from the political center.

Indeed, it could also potentially fuel more extreme forms of populism.

Pandemic fatigue

Years of COVID-19 and public health measures, including masking, confinement and vaccination campaigns, seem to have exhausted citizens.

The so-called freedom convoy that descended on Canada’s Parliament Hill in Ottawa earlier this year demonstrated the outright anger of citizens, both those opposing vaccination mandates and those affected by the protests.

Police officers seen on a snowy street in a fenced area.
People walk in Ottawa near a fenced area after police ended a week-long truck blockade and protested COVID-19 measures.

Burnout leading to resistance

In addition, educator burnout is a serious problem across Canada. US media have also reported that education workers are quitting in droves, generally citing burnout, low pay and lack of support as the main drivers for leaving extremely demanding jobs.

The experience of the pandemic has been, on the whole, negative for education workers.

Read more: A predominantly female teaching body defends public education

It should come as no surprise, then, that when workers experience emotions such as burnout, fatigue, and disrespect, they may begin to resist the imposition of unreasonable new demands placed upon them as well as at their work.

A person with a sign that says
Education workers strike on the picket line in Kingston, Ontario on November 4, 2022.

A better future?

Examining current labor disputes in Ontario gives us a glimpse of what the future may bring.

The issues affecting education workers are the same as those affecting most workers today – including precarious forms of employment that leave workers economically insecure, emotionally frustrated and angry.

Collective action and solidarity – whether through a formalized working group or not – remains the best way to improve the economic life of all workers.

Could this look like more organizing campaigns in various sectors? A recent US study found that being unionized “throughout one’s career is associated with an average increase of $1.3 million in lifetime earnings” — more than a post-secondary degree.

As Standing notes:

“There has been a systematic dismantling of institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity, age-old zones of empathy, in which ethics and standards of conduct are passed down from generation to generation. Such institutions oppose the market, protecting their members.

Education workers appear to be at the forefront of the ongoing struggle against neoliberalism and the extreme forms of privatization and economic inequality seen across the world.

Maybe the workers have finally had enough and will continue to hold on until their voices are heard.

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