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ETFO Celebrates 10 Years of Success: From Placards to YouTube: A Decade of Social Activism

Vivian McCaffrey

ETFO was born into one of the most tumultuous periods in Ontario education history. In October 1997, 126,000 teachers staged a two-week walkout to protest the assault on teachers and public education by the Conservative government of Mike Harris. ETFO’s first annual meeting took place a few months later. Delegates to that 1998 founding meeting voted unanimously to work to defeat the Conservative government in the next provincial election. From its beginnings, political action has played a vital role in ETFO’s growth into an influential and powerful entity.

Ontario teachers have a long, proud history of working for social and political change. The formation of ETFO was preceded by nine decades of activism that, among other gains, resulted in standard contracts for teachers, statutory union membership, professional recognition, the right to strike, pay equity for women teachers, and equal partnership in managing our pension. The intensity of the Harris government initiatives, however, meant that teachers and other education workers had to commit unprecedented attention and resources to political action during ETFO’s first decade.

Years of Turmoil

At the time the federation was founded, ETFO members were experiencing the dizzying throes of the Tories’ so-called Common Sense Revolution: school board amalgamations, funding cuts, strips to bargaining rights, creation of the new regulatory body, the Ontario College of Teachers, province-wide student testing, and a new elementary curriculum and standard report card imposed without consultation, resources, or training for teachers. Bill 160, the Education Accountability Act, which prompted the massive teacher walkout in the fall of 1997, removed principals and vice-principals from the teacher federations, cancelled five of the nine professional activity days, and prevented teachers from negotiating class sizes. These policies were aimed directly at undermining public confidence in our school system and weakening the influence of teachers and their unions. John Snobelen, the first education minister during the Harris regime, called the public system “mediocre” and summarized his agenda by his infamous comment that the government needed to “invent a crisis” in order to open the way to reforming the system.

There was no evidence that any of the Tories’ policies would improve the quality of education. Although the Ontario College of Teachers and standardized testing were introduced in the dying days of the one-term NDP government, the Tories quickly made these two initiatives their own. They used these measures to attack teachers, arguing that teachers needed to be more productive and more accountable, much as right-wing Republicans were doing south of the border.

Continuing “Reforms”

The end of the Tories’ first term in office did not mean an end to their education “reforms.” Shortly after they were re-elected in June 1999, they moved to mandate teacher recertification, legislate extracurricular activities, and fund private schools through a tuition tax credit.

ETFO’s response to these initiatives was multifaceted and included extensive public relations initiatives, direct lobbying, member engagement, training of political activists, and involvement in elections. What were the results? Looking back over the past 10 years, it is clear that ETFO achieved a number of important gains through political action and public relations, working both on its own and in collaboration with mother education and social justice partners. In addition to joint actions with our sister teacher federations, ETFO has worked within the labour movement and with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, the Ontario Health Coalition, antipoverty groups, and organizations committed to women’s equality.

Lobbying the government and opposition parties

Throughout the tenure of the Conservative government, ETFO responded to the myriad initiatives with reasoned, researched positions. We developed position papers on education funding, teacher testing, student assessment, special education, kindergarten, split grades, and loss of equity from the curriculum. These positions papers were shared with the government and with the public. They added to our federation’s credibility and convinced the opposition parties that changes had to be made. The government of the day didn’t often embrace ETFO’s position, but the federation’s lobbying paved the way for the 2003 election and Liberal and NDP commitments to repeal many of the Tory initiatives. A number of ETFO proposals were ultimately adopted by the newly elected Liberal government.

Solidarity makes a difference

As with collective bargaining, mobilizing members to support the federation’s leadership is key to our political effectiveness. In spring 2000, in response to the government’s plan to make teacher involvement in extracurricular activities mandatory (Bill 74), ETFO members participated in an all-member ballot indicating that they believed the legislation was a direct attack on their professionalism and bargaining rights. They then withdrew from providing extracurricular activities. These actions sent a resounding message to then Education Minister Janet Ecker. She blinked. When the bill came up for the final vote, she announced that the provision related to mandatory elementary extracurricular activities would not be put into effect.

Fighting recertification

A year later 97 percent of ETFO members voted against complying with the professional learning program (PLP) that required them to enrol in 14 courses approved by the College of Teachers every five years. The vast majority of members backed up this vote by continuing with their professional development but boycotting PLP courses. Local presidents lobbied PLP providers, including school boards, to withdraw from the program. They held school-based meetings to keep members informed about the federation’s position and strategy. The extent of our members’ determination sent a clear message that the recertification program was unviable and at the core of teacher discontent. Both opposition parties promised to repeal the measure if elected. In December 2003, one of Gerard Kennedy’s first acts as the new Liberal education minister was to write an open letter to teachers announcing his intention to legislate the end of teacher recertification.

Ontario College of Teachers

Member action was also crucial in building pressure to reform the Ontario College of Teachers’ governing council. Unlike many other similar professional regulatory bodies, teachers did not have a majority on the governing council of the college. Thousands of ETFO members signed petitions and postcards, contacted their MPP, and attended a June 2002 rally outside the college to send a clear message that reform was a high priority. This member action laid the groundwork for lobbying efforts by teachers’ federations during the Liberals’ first term of office. The reform was eventually achieved through Bill 78, passed in June 2006.

Election involvement: The ultimate political action

Ultimately it’s through participation in elections that ETFO has had its most direct political impact. During the 1999 provincial election campaign, ETFO was part of a coalition of labour and social justice groups that worked to defeat the Conservative government. Although the coalition was unsuccessful in limiting the Harris Conservatives to a single term, the lessons from the 1999 election taught us a lot about the importance of communications, planning, and mobilization. Delegates to the ETFO 2000 Annual Meeting approved the creation of the Political Action/Public Relations Fund, a specific membership levy that has been used to sponsor public relations campaigns, make donations to political parties and candidates, support ETFO candidates, train political activists, and support members working in election campaigns.

In spring 2002, ETFO held a series of regional training sessions to prepare members to work in strategically targeted ridings – ridings where we believed the Tory candidate could be defeated. In the 2003 election, ETFO (in partnership with its locals) paid the salaries of 75 members who worked in 30 ridings. In 23 of those ridings the Conservative incumbent was defeated. The federation also joined the Working Families Coalition, a union-based group that sponsored a series of highly effective television ads that prompted the public to conclude it was time for a change of government. During the 2007 election, we expanded our support by sending 92 members into 37 campaigns, 26 of which were successful. This election was also preceded by extensive member preparation: pre-election training for activists, three years of training sessions for the chairs of local political action committees, and the federation’s first Women in Politics conference designed to expand women’s participation in elections. Each training event and election makes ETFO a stronger organization whose growing membership directly influences the outcome of elections by communicating the federation’s position to MPPs and the community both during and between campaigns.

Today’s challenges

Looking back over the past decade, it’s gratifying to conclude that our political action is no longer about fending off the attacks of a hostile government but rather about working to build better public schools. ETFO’s current priorities are to close the gap in elementary funding, promote a teacher-based model for full-day kindergarten, and see the end of large-scale standardized testing. To achieve these goals, ETFO is continuing the strategies that have been successful in the past. After 10 years we’re relying more on technology – YouTube as well as placards – to communicate our message, and we are well positioned to continue to make gains for public elementary education and for our members.

Liberal Government Repeals Tory initiatives

Once elected, the liberals

  • Repealed the private school tax credit retroactive to January 2003
  • Increased funding to education to significantly address Harris cuts and partially reduce the elementary gap
  • Repealed teacher recertification program
  • Cancelled Ontario Teacher Qualifying Test and introduced New Teacher Induction Program
  • Streamlined teacher performance appraisal process
  • Established teacher majority on Ontario College of Teachers governing council
  • Restored two of five eliminated PA Days