On Saturday, March 7, 2015 ETFO members from across the GTA gathered at the foot of an industrial driveway on Fenmar Drive in North York, the entrance to the Crown Metal Packaging plant. For decades, members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9176 have made beer cans at this plant for some of the biggest brands in North America. For months they had occupied the driveway. By the day we arrived, members of USW 9176 had been on strike for 18 months, engaged in an ugly and protracted standoff with their employer with no end in sight. Participating in this solidarity picket reinforced what I have known for a long time as a union activist. It is essential that we support the fights of other working people across our province, lending our strength, our skills and our solidarity.
The picket rally – billed as Solidarity Saturday and supported by ETFO members, OSSTF members from Peel and Toronto, OECTA members from York Region, and CUPE 3902 and 3903 members from Toronto – came about pretty organically. Having reached out to the local, we were able to connect with one of their organizers who was thrilled with the idea of having us out to the picket line. The rest of the organization and coordination was fairly straightforward. We put an event flyer together and disseminated it through as many channels as possible. Ultimately, the turnout was good, and, although it was a bitterly cold afternoon, we were all warmed by the sight of so many union flags at the entrance to the plant and the significance of our small but powerful show of solidarity. The day after the picket, I received an email from one of the USW strikers that captures the impact of our involvement as education workers in the struggles of the broader labour movement. It read, in part: “You have no idea how much we appreciated the teachers attending our picket line. It was a Saturday when they could have spent that precious time with their families... If your family of teachers is ever involved in a strike situation please contact me so we can rally around your sisters and brothers.”
Among the most egregious demands being made at the time by the company was the imposition of a two-tier wage structure with a starting hourly wage for new hires of half of what current employees were being paid, a continued freeze on wages and pension contributions (even though both had already been frozen for almost nine years while the company had continued to be immensely profitable), and the planned firing of a core group of 30 strikers as retribution for their activism. In a letter to USW Canadian Director Ken Neumann dated March 10, 2015, ETFO President Sam Hammond conveyed the full support of ETFO for the striking workers, stating: “It is unconscionable that this Philadelphia-based multinational corporation, which doubled its profits in 2012, should fail to engage in good-faith bargaining and attempt to undermine and eliminate the union from its Toronto facility. The fact that USW employees played a huge part in earning this facility Crown’s North American “Plant of the Year” award in 2012 for outstanding “safety, productivity, quality and budget management” makes the company’s actions even more reprehensible. We will continue to advise our members not to purchase beer made in cans from Crown in support of these workers, many of whom have provided an average of 20 or more years of service to Crown.”
What We Desire for Ourselves...
The story of solidarity above is only one example of the kind of contribution ETFO members and locals are making across the province. But we could do more. You don’t have to look very far to find causes that could benefit from the involvement and activism of teachers. Our abilities as clear and confident communicators, as well as our power as a union of 78,000 members, position us to offer a great deal of support to the fights for equity and social justice in our communities, in our province and beyond.
Activism isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to everyone. In discussions with colleagues and other education sector union members, I have often heard it said that people don’t choose to become teachers because they want to be involved in politics or political causes. They come to teaching because they want to teach kids and make a difference in their classrooms and in their schools, not because it is a unionized field. They come to teaching by choice, and they come to union membership automatically. While this may be true, it doesn’t erase the responsibility (I would argue the opportunity) we have as union members to be aware, at the very least, of the struggles and difficult circumstances faced by other working people in Ontario. Our dual roles as educators and members of the largest education union in the country give us significant power to influence the society in which we all live.
Whether or not someone who joins the teaching profession has any interest in union activism, it doesn’t take long to demonstrate that it’s because of our union that our profession is as strong and stable as it is today. Even a short history of past bargaining serves to highlight advancements in compensation, benefits, pension, workplace health and safety, and other working conditions – advancements that have come about not because of the goodwill of any one employer or government, but because of the constant struggle of union members and the efforts of our elected leaders and federation staff. And while our profession is far from ideal and we have (and always will have) more work to do to improve the working conditions of teachers and the learning conditions of students, we have good jobs. We have the power to be changemakers and community builders every single day. As such, it is our responsibility to involve ourselves in efforts that improve the circumstances and working lives of others. It was J.S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (predecessor to the NDP), who said it best: “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”
Fighting Austerity with Activism
Activism can take many forms. At its most visible, activism might include attending a rally or a picket line to show support for another union local that is on strike or lockout (again, it’s difficult to overstate just how powerful and meaningful this one symbolic act can be) or for a cause that has direct connections to workers and their lives. A few recent examples of this type of action include:
- The OFL rally for decent work that took place in Toronto on Saturday, October 1st. ETFO members joined other unions, community and student groups to call for safe working conditions, fair hours, access to a union, paid sick days and vacation, $15 minimum wage and an end to the gender/racialized wage gap;
- The work done during 2014-2015 in support of Crown workers, members of USW 9176, which included both picket line rallies and leafleting of Beer Store locations to help spread the Steelworkers’ message;
- The Stand Up for Steel rally in Hamilton on January 30, 2016 that was successful in bringing attention to the situation being faced by USW Locals 1005 and 8782, whose retirees (former employees of Stelco/US Steel) are being refused benefits by the company after having paid into the fund for their entire working lives;
- The rallies in support of $15 and Fairness that took place on April 4, 2016 in cities across the province to bring attention to the need for a $15 per hour minimum wage and fairness in employment standards;
- The rally at the Mexican Consulate in Toronto on July 4, 2016 in support of Mexican teachers and families who are fighting back against the government’s proposed reforms to the education system in their country and whose activism has been met with military repression resulting in the deaths of several teachers; and
- The picket line support to striking Mississauga Library workers, members of CUPE Local 1989, over the course of their strike in July 2016.
Attending rallies and pickets is important work that ETFO members across the province have the power and organization to engage in. Our presence at these public displays of support is appreciated, and remembered.
In addition to rallies and pickets, however, ETFO members are engaged in other forms of activism every single day in their communities, through their local labour councils, messages of support on social media, letters to the editors of the province’s various media outlets, and letters to elected officials at all levels of government to advocate on behalf of various organizations and causes. Members can easily get involved in their area by contacting their local’s representative responsible for political action or social justice issues, or by reaching out to their area labour council (an alphabetical list can be found on the OFL’s website). In addition, the ETFO Advocacy and Action webpage contains a wealth of information on issues that are being targeted at the provincial level.
If every one of ETFO’s 78,000 members across the province were to engage in some small form of activism on a regular basis we could turn the tide away from austerity and towards a society that doesn’t just work for some, but holds promise for everyone. So grab a sign, a flag, a phone or a pen. Attend the next rally, a community meeting or reach out to a local labour council. Get involved.
Felipe Pareja is a Core French teacher in Mississauga and a member of the Peel Teacher Local. He chairs his local’s Political Action Committee.