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Part I of It's Elementary: A Brief History of Ontario's Elementary Teachers and Their Federations

Barbara Richter

This is the first of a four-part history of Ontario public elementary teachers and their federations.

 We will learn about ETFO and its predecessor organizations, the challenges they faced and the victories they achieved. We will learn that:

  • Federations work steadfastly to promote and protect the interests of their members
  • Federations were and continue to be leaders in advocating for the rights of teachers and the broader society
  • Funding for elementary education has been an issue since the 1800s
  • Legal or collective agreement rights are never completely secure; the Federation and its members have had to be vigilant in keeping elementary education issues in the public eye and on the government agenda.

This overview captures some of ETFO’s more public achievements during the last eight years. ETFO also performs a great deal of work on behalf of members through professional relations services, equity and women’s services,  professional  development,  public  relations,  communications,  collective bargaining, research, leadership development, and much more. There is outreach to equality-seeking groups, to community, labour, and social justice groups, in addition to the work ETFO does on the international scene. I will highlight some of that work in future installments. I will go back in history but will not leave ETFO behind: past issues remain relevant and ETFO continues to address them today.

1998 – what a year to be born as a federation! It was the year of “the big ice storm” in Eastern Ontario and Quebec. Google was founded and Sesame Street turned 30. It was the year Swissair  flight 111 crashed off Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia. Air Canada pilots went on strike for the first time in the company’s history. The Calgary Stampeders won the Grey Cup and the New York Yankees won the World Series. Bill Clinton was president of the USA. Jean Chrétien was the prime minister  of Canada and Joe Clarke had been elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Par ty of Canada again.  Mike Harris was premier of Ontario. And the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) began.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario was created by the amalgamation of two predecessor organizations, the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) and the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation (OPSTF). When ETFO began operating as a federation on July 1, 1998, it continued the work of two federations that had worked to promote and protect the interests of public school educators for 80 years.

The year 1998 was a time of massive change in Ontario education. The provincial government forced Ontario’s 129 school boards to merge into to 72 organizations, 31 of them public boards. Some of these new boards were huge, covering, in one instance, an area the size of France.

New  funding  arrangements  meant  boards could no longer raise money from their local tax base. Teachers  were brought under the Ontario Labour Relations Act. Occasional teachers became members of  teacher  federations  but  principals and vice-principals were removed. Thousands of veteran teachers and administrators took advantage of a new opportunity – the 85 factor – for early retirement. Added to this was a new curriculum (with no resources for implementation), new report  cards (with  none  of  the  technical support needed to produce them), and the threat of ongoing teacher testing.

These were not ideal conditions in which to launch a new federation but elementary teachers proved once again they were up to the challenge.


The critical first year…

A hectic year of activity followed ETFO’s inaugural Annual Meeting in 1998.

In  collective  bargaining  the  Federation  and the newly configured school boards had to rec- oncile old agreements – sometimes six or more agreements had  to  become  one.  Many  of  the benefits teachers enjoyed were removed from the Education Act and had to be renegotiated. School boards, crying poverty in the face of  the new funding formula, were eager to strip hard-won clauses on working conditions, staffing, and ben- efits. Their idea of reconciling salary grids was moving to the lowest wage.

It took tough bargaining, determined members, more than 20 takeovers, and three strikes (including one lockout), but ETFO locals prevailed. Salaries were reconciled up and working conditions preserved; in both cases some mod- est  improvements were made.  One  local  even managed to  reinstate a retirement benefit lost in 1979.

But bargaining wasn’t all ETFO did that first year. The programs and services that  the  two federations had offered also had to be merged. Education and training programs offered in that first year included a training program for local leaders,  summer  curriculum  courses,  professional growth workshops, and credit courses.

Curriculum  Connections  and  Presenters on the Road were launched.

There were workshops for Aboriginal and racial minority women members, and leadership, employment equity, and collective bargaining training for women. New curriculum resources were created, including the nationally acclaimed anti-bias cur- riculum, Were Erasing Prejudice for Good.

ETFO consulted members from equality-seeking groups to see how the organization could meet their needs. It created a program to welcome new members and made presentations to future members at the faculties of education. To  keep  in  touch  with  its  members  ETFO launched a new website and created Voice magazine, which was mailed to each member’s home. Information packages sent to stewards at every school included the newsletters Link and Womens Issues.

ETFO  responded  to  government  initiatives, presented position papers, lobbied the government,  and  developed  relationships  with  the broader labour and social justice communities. And ETFO also provided advice and assistance to hundreds of individual members. Not bad for a first year!


The 1999 spring election

Delegates to  the  1998  ETFO Annual Meeting voted unanimously to work to defeat  the Mike Harris government and to elect MPPs who would promote  high-quality  public   education.  During the provincial election held in June, ETFO worked with other  teacher federations, unions, and community groups to raise the profile of public   education.  ETFO  produced  billboards, leaflets, radio ads, and co-sponsored TV  advertising.  The  provincial  organization  and  many locals released members to work in Liberal and NDP campaigns. Mike Harris’s government was re-elected, but 17 Conservative incumbents lost their seats. These included three cabinet ministers,  one  of them former Education Minister David Johnson.


Teacher testing

When the government threatened to force teach- ers into a cyclical testing program to maintain their certification, ETFO took control of the issue, and, before any details were announced, released Ensuring Professional Standards in Ontario Education: A Response to the Teacher Testing Proposal.The document showed that teacher testing failed to assess teacher competency, wasted taxpayer’s money, and had no precedent in Canada or the US. ETFO proposed alternatives that would ben- efit the education system, students and teachers.

The paper called for:

  • Enhanced,  government-supported  teacher professional development
  • Development  of  a  provincial  model  for teacher evaluation and professional growth, in partnership with education stakeholders
  • Creation of a mentoring program for new teachers.


Funding for elementary education

When the 2000-2001 grants provided additional funding  for  secondary  programs  but  no  new money for the elementary panel, ETFO responded. Out of Focus: How Student-Focused Funding UndervaluesElementary Education detailed how each  grant  shortchanged  elementary  students. As a direct result of ETFO’s actions, the next provincial budget included additional money for the reduction of primary class sizes, $70 million in special  education funding for junior kindergarten and primary students, and an additional $70 million for early-years reading initiatives.


Keeping extra-curricular activities voluntary

Other problems were also brewing. The Education Act increased the course load of secondary teachers and, as  a result, many refused to volunteer for extra-curricular activities. Bill 74, the Education Accountability Act, made extra-curricular activities mandatory anytime, any place, and any day in the school year for both  elementary and secondary teachers. It also denied teachers the  right to  bargain conditions around  extra- curricular activities.

ETFO fought back. With our partners in the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, ETFO explored a Charter ofRights and Freedoms challenge to the bill and a complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

ETFO  consulted  its  membership.  Over  99 per cent of them agreed Bill 74 represented an unwarranted  intrusion  into  their  professional role and was a direct attack on collective bargaining rights. With this strong mandate ETFO advised teachers not to take on extra-curricular activities during the 2000-2001 school year.

Keeping extra-curricular  activities  voluntary became one of ETFO’s bargaining goals. ETFO’s public  relations  campaign,  N Mor Bullying, included radio spots, newspaper ads, and a special website that allowed members  to fax their MPPs and put on the record their opposition to both Bill 74 and the recertification scheme. At the height of the campaign, the website attracted over 1,000 visitors a day, more than five times the normal traffic.

Teachers  won.  On  June  12,  the  Minister announced she would not proclaim the part of Bill 74 that dealt with extra-curricular activities and, in the future, would deal separately with the elementary and secondary panels.


Building partnerships and presence

That summer delegates to the 2000 Annual Meeting voted overwhelmingly to join the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), making ETFO the largest teachers’ organization in the  country affiliated with  the  labour  movement.  ETFO recognized that participation in the labour movement would give the federation added power to advance the cause of  public  education, high-quality public services, and the rights of workers.

Capitalizing on the success of the ETFO media campaigns, delegates also  voted  to  establish a provincial  political  action/public relations fund to  support  activities to  reclaim the  education agenda,  forge  alliances   with   parents  and  the public,  and  protect  and  improve  the  working conditions of teachers and the learning  conditions of students.


Protecting teachers as professionals

On June 12, under the guise of improving education  and  ensuring  teacher  competency,  the government  finally  unveiled its teacher recertification plan. Bill 80, the Stability and Excellence inEducation Act, 2001, required members of the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) to participate in a five-year recertification cycle during which they would have to successfully complete 14 professional development courses. The prescribed set of courses gave teachers little flexibility. It did not take into account students’ learning  needs, teachers’ own professional development goals, or what stage they were at in their careers.

The OCT would administer this Professional Learning Plan (PLP) and would  randomly select the first cohort of 40,000 practising teachers who would start their five-year cycle in September 2001. Those remaining would start the following year. Fighting  recertification  was  a  challenge  for teachers because many members of  the  public believed it would create greater accountability.

ETFO had to show that this was a myth: teachers were taking part in professional development; accountability mechanisms such as performance appraisal were already  in  place;  and  the  Federation  had  a  credible alternative plan. ETFO needed to educate members to ensure their sup- port for strong and united action, and also win the support of parents and politicians.

ETFO’s campaign – Accountability YES/Recertification NO – was a call to members to boycott the PLP plan while continuing to engage in and document their professional growth activities. It continued for three years and involved every service area, provincial and local leaders, and each individual member.

The campaign was a prime example of a multi-pronged approach to defeat a government initiative: legal action, data gathering to put an elementary face on the issue, swift consultation with members to get their support for action, partnerships with other stakeholders to strengthen the opposition, a media campaign that told the real story behind the legislation, and extensive public and private lobbying with government representatives.

The results were outstanding. Fewer than 14 percent of teachers complied with the PLP. But the government didn’t budge. It was clear that winning this fight would require a change of government.


Fair funding – A member priority

Government underfunding of education was widely  criticized:  teacher  federations, school  boards, and parents all spoke out. In the spring of 2002, the  government appointed  Mordechai  Rozanski to head the Education Equality Task Force which would review the funding model. ETFO told the Task Force what members had said: class sizes were too large and supports too few, specialist teachers and programs were lost, special education was in crisis, workloads had increased, and the difference in per capita funding for elementary and secondary students was not only unfair but illogical.

The  Task  Force  reported  in  December  and confirmed  that  public  education  in  Ontario needed an infusion of  $2 billion. The government quickly announced more funding for salary benchmarks, somewhat easing the 2002-2003 collective agreement negotiations.

Despite  the  extra  money,  boards  were  still under  extreme  financial  pressure. Three  public boards – Ottawa-Carleton, Hamilton-Wentworth, and Toronto – refused to make the spending cuts required to achieve a balanced budget. The government response was swift and brutal: they stripped these boards of their powers and appointed supervisors to oversee them.

In  the  spring ETFO launched  Fair Funding for Public Education with a full public relations campaign based on the message Restore funding.  Restor programs. Restor democracy. The specific plea to the public was Help us help your kids Though  Toronto,  Hamilton-Wentworth and  Ottawa-Carleton  were  targeted,  the  campaign rolled out across the province prior to the anticipated provincial election.


Keeping in touch with members

From its inception ETFO reached out to members, checking on their attitudes to and their knowledge of their union. Did they read ETFO publications? Were they satisfied with ETFO programs? The responses were overwhelmingly positive.

For several years ETFO also gathered informa- tion  through  school-based  surveys  completed by  ETFO  stewards.  These  responses  told  the real story of the impact of funding cuts – bigger classes, heavier workloads, more paperwork, fewer programs, and crumbling schools.

At the same time, ETFO professional relations staff detected some alarming new trends – more teachers under review; more stress-related LTD claims; increased workloads due to the loss of administrators, support personnel, and specialist teachers; lack of supply teachers to cover absences; inadequate training and supports for teachers in new positions.

ETFO  distributed  this  information  widely. More importantly, however, the Federation was able to develop strategies to address the issues members identified.


Analyzing the landscape – 2003

For four years ETFO worked with parents, the public, its locals, and opposition parties to make education  a  major  focus  of  the  next  election campaign. Both the Liberals and the NDP gave ETFO  written  commitments  that  they  would rescind the recertification legislation and reform the OCT to make it a truly self-governing body. Both parties adopted the ETFO class size policy. All ETFO collective agreements were due to expire on August 31, 2004, creating both challenges and opportunities for the organization. Workload was a major issue – teachers were seeking improvements and boards wanted to strip workload provisions from agreements.

The funding  formula was also a problem.

Although  the  Education Ac provided  for  an average of 200 minutes of preparation time for elementary teachers, the  formula  only  funded 137 minutes. There were no provisions for special programs, lunchroom supervisors, or other supports necessary to run an effective school.

All of these factors converged to lead to the launch of Building for Tomorrow.


Building for Tomorrow

Delegates to the 2003 Annual Meeting approved a multi-year initiative to enhance bargaining and revitalize the organization. Building for Tomorrow included hiring  additional bargaining staff; additional training for local negotiating teams, stewards, and members; a public relations campaign; and putting in place enhanced technology to support bargaining.


Election 2003

When the Liberal party won the October 2 election it promised to bring peace and  stability to the education system. It pledged to treat teachers with respect, to form a genuine partnership with education groups, to inject more money into the system, to do away with PLP, to make the OCT truly self-governing, and to reduce primary class size.

During its first five years ETFO proved that it  could  advance  and  protect  the  interests  of members, negotiate sound collective agreements, mobilize  against regressive  legislation, provide professional  development,  train  new  leaders, advance social justice, partner with other unions and education stakeholders, and win the support of  parents and the public. And it did all this in the face of a hostile government.

Now ETFO would demonstrate that it could work  co-operatively  with   government   while maintaining an unwavering commitment to its members and the issues that mattered to them.


Campaign 200 – the campaign for more preparation time

Campaign  20 –  Plannin Today Buildin for Tomorrow, the first public manifestation of ETFO’s multi-year plan, was unveiled in February 2004. With a government committed to reducing the size  of  primary classes, ETFO could concentrate on other member issues. Its bargaining priorities for teachers and ESP/PSP members were 200 minutes of preparation time, a cap on supervision time, real  salary increases, and  improved leave and benefit plans. Occasional teachers’ bargaining priorities included ensuring the occasional teacher got the same timetable as the teacher being replaced and  improved daily rates of  pay. The demand for increased preparation time addressed workload issues but it also meant more programs and more specialist teachers.

On June  2, all ETFO locals signed takeover agreements making the provincial organization their bargaining agent. Bargaining began in earnest in the fall of 2004. During the winter teachers voted overwhelmingly in favour of going on strike to back their bargaining demands.


ETFO forges a new approach to bargaining

ETFO’s bargaining goals had a hefty price tag and paying for them would require a funding commitment  from  the  province.  ETFO  took advantage of the Minister’s invitation to teacher unions to explore the feasibility of establishing a provincial framework for negotiations. For four months the Federation worked with the minister and with the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association to develop a provincial framework for  salary,  preparation  time,  and  supervision time issues. Agreement was reached in April. The four-year accord included 200 minutes of preparation  time  by 2008, caps on supervision time, and a 10.6 per cent salary increase. The government would fund the framework. Negotiations on the framework and on local issues proceeded with each district school board.

ETFO paved the way for a unique form of bargaining. It secured funding from the province for common issues  but negotiated local issues and the application of the framework with individual school boards. By the end of  June, all teacher locals had successfully negotiated new collective agreements.


There’s no substitute …

Occasional teacher bargaining followed. Occasional  teacher  leaders  received  training  and another public relations campaign was unveiled to support bargaining – There Is No Substitute for a SubstituteTeacher.

By the end of the year all occasional teacher locals had  collective agreements that  included the bargaining demands: timetable of the teacher being replaced and gains in their daily rate, some in excess of 25 per cent, closing the gap between the highest and lowest rate significantly. In May the Near North Occasional Teacher Local staged a three-week strike before it was able to successfully conclude an agreement. As we begin a new school year all  members are covered by signed collective agreements, an historic first.


Looking to the Future

In the eight years of its existence, ETFO has served its members and won the respect of the public and recognition from the government.

But elementary education is still underfunded. Elementary teachers are still overworked. School boards  and   administrators  are  still  trying  to undermine collective agreements. Elementary students arrive at school each fall, eager to learn. But some are hungry, some are sick, and some need resources our  schools  aren’t  providing.  So  the work continues, as it has for the past 100 years.