Feature

Looking Back: Women's History in Ontario Teacher Federations

Mary Morison

Women elementary teachers generally found their working conditions were better than those of many other women workers. More than 50 years of action by their federation had given them employment rights, rights for married women, pregnancy leave. New bargaining legislation allowed them to negotiate improved rights for women. Now they began to talk about sexual harassment, protection from discrimination, improved working conditions, paid pregnancy and parental leaves and equal treatment for women in obtaining positions and promotions.

From Bright Beginnings to Harsh Realities

In the 1970s, the new generation of women teachers found their progress impeded by ceilings on school board expenditures, federal government wage and price controls and a decade-long period of declining enrolment.

The boards responded by making deep cuts, many disproportionately affecting women and young children. Boards attempted to replace junior kindergarten teachers with early childhood education graduates. They increased primary class sizes and introduced teaching assistants to handle the extra workload. Special education and ESL programs were slashed and libraries closed. In many boards, teacher-librarians were replaced by library technicians.

In 1975, new legislation gave federations the legal right to bargain collectively with boards. Teachers had been making great strides in obtaining salary improvements, winning significant double digit settlements to bring their salaries in line with those of other professional groups. Then, in October 1975, the federal government imposed wage and price controls. Many of the gains were rolled back and federation efforts diverted from their own issues to fighting to maintain the status quo.

In the 1970s, enrolments declined steeply resulting in an estimated loss of 5,500 elementary teaching positions. Old biases reappeared. Women who had been forced to resign before statutory maternity leave was enacted could not find work. Women who had accepted part-time assignments had no hope of gaining full-time work. Married women were pressured to reduce their hours, to resign or to retire early to make jobs available for others. Women were identified as surplus to system needs in greater numbers than their male colleagues. One board had 53 teachers on its redundancy list – all women. In another list of 200 redundant teachers, women outnumbered men by 9 to 1. At the beginning of the decade, 75 percent of elementary teachers were women; by 1980, it was 66.5 percent.

Equal Pay... Equal Value

In the debates around feminism, this question is often asked. It is 2016 after all. But women’s wages are still lower than those of men. Women still bear most of the responsibility for home care, child care and elder care. Women still experience violence and harassment on a daily basis – at home and at work.

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