Participation in political rallies gives ETFO members an important opportunity to support their union’s bargaining position; it gives them a public voice on how contract provisions directly affect classroom working and learning conditions. ETFO members find themselves once again compelled to protest the government and employer stance at the bargaining table. The current round of education sector bargaining is the first under the new provincial bargaining legislation. It follows the tumultuous 2012 bargaining year that saw ETFO spearheading the fight against Bill 115, the legislation that unilaterally imposed provisions on ETFO collective agreements. In 2012, ETFO members responded to the anti-democratic thrust of Bill 115 by holding local and provincial rallies and ultimately engaging in a one-day walkout in December of that year. In spite of the new bargaining legislation, designed to bring a constructive framework to education sector bargaining, ETFO members are once again picking up their placards and marching to Queen’s Park, local MPP offices, or school board headquarters. ETFO approached the first round of bargaining under the new framework with optimism that an agreement could be achieved with the government and Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) in a fair and respectful way. ETFO was under no illusion that bargaining would be easy, given the austerity messages from the government. However, our negotiations team was taken aback by the extent of the strips tabled by OPSBA and by the failure of the government, also a party at the table, to step in and rein in the employer organization. The OPSBA strips amount to wiping away more than a decade of improvements to teaching and learning conditions gained through collective bargaining and through lobbying at Queen’s Park.
May Queen’s Park Rally
Mobilizing members to attend political rallies during provincial bargaining usually happens late in the bargaining process when impasse occurs over high-cost items. This time around, education sector unions organized rallies shortly after negotiations got under way. Bargaining was slow to start because of the protracted process for determining what would be negotiated at the central and local tables. The egregious nature of the contract strips tabled by the employer and the failure of the government to intervene to have the strips removed, prompted the unions to play the rally card earlier than is usually the case. In May, the ETFO Executive and local leaders from across the province attended a Queen’s Park rally organized by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. The rally was called when it was clear that having three secondary units on full withdrawal – Durham, Rainbow and Peel – was not enough to move OPSBA to withdraw its strips. The presidents from the four teacher federations and CUPE Ontario joined together on the stage to send a message to both the government and OPSBA about the unacceptable strips. The rally was an important opportunity to demonstrate that the education unions were standing in solidarity against the employer-side demands.
Rallies Targeting Ontario Liberal Party and OPSBA Meetings
On two back-to-back weekends in June, the Ontario Liberal Party and OPSBA held their respective annual general meetings at the Blue Mountain resort in Collingwood. While the ETFO locals from the Greater Toronto Area and Simcoe County took the lead in organizing the rallies, ETFO members from most southwestern and central Ontario locals also hopped on buses or carpooled to support the protests. They were joined by OSSTF, OECTA, CUPE and OPSEU members. The rallies focused on the education sector bargaining but also provided the opportunity to profile OPSEU’s bargaining impasse with the government and the shared opposition to Hydro One privatization. There was a strong contingent of ETFO members at both events and the rallies drew important media attention to the bargaining conflict and the union message.
Future Political Action
As the new school year gets under way, it’s difficult to predict whether the spring rallies and public concern about potential disruption to schools will have created enough leverage to get all sides to the negotiations table for meaningful discussion. If negotiations continue to be intractable, then members can expect another siren call to join the brigades at both local and provincial rallies. Political rallies, where members exercise their democratic right to protest government policy, will remain a central component of ETFO’s member mobilization strategy. Vivian McCaffrey is an executive staff member at ETFO.