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

Barbara Richter

PART 4: Early 1980 to 1998

The 1980s – Decade of Equity

Although the 1960s and 1970s were the years of consciousness-raising, the rise of teacher militancy, and the beginnings of many social justice movements, it was during the 1980s that progress on equity issues was made  in  policy, legislation, union structure, and collective agreements.

In 1982 Canada got a constitution. Section 15, the main equality rights section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, came into effect on April 17, 1985. The Charter’s enshrinement of  women’s rights was the result of intensive work by women’s groups, including FWTAO, which  helped organize the 1981 Women’s Constitutional Conference to push for women’s equality. FWTAO later gave startup support to the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), to ensure that women’s rights were upheld.

Trade  unions  responded  to  the  demand  for  equality  in part by creating designated positions on their executives. The first labour organization in Canada to do so was the Ontario Federation of Labour, which in 1983 designated  seats specifically for women on its executive. Other unions soon followed, and designated positions expanded to  include visible minorities; Aboriginal Canadians; people living with disabilities; gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons; and youth.


Greater equality in schools

Amendments to  the Education Act made education more accessible to students with special needs, giving them more opportunities and eventually removing labels like “trainable retarded” from the education vocabulary. Teacher federations supported the new opportunities but also demanded funding to back up the move toward integration of special needs students. They  also  made  a  renewed  thrust  in  negotiating  working  conditions clauses to ensure that class sizes were appropriate and that teachers had the resources and the time to do their work effectively. At the beginning of the decade, only a handful of elementary agreements contained preparation- time  language. By the end of the decade, and following the 1987 strike for preparation time in Metro Toronto,  almost every teacher collective agreement had  such provisions. ETFO’s Campaign 200 continued  that initiative.

The federations fought for just-cause clauses prohibiting boards from firing teachers without just cause, and for protections against discrimination and sexual harassment. Paid pregnancy  leave, a revolutionary concept at the time, became a major focus in bargaining.


Equal opportunity for women teachers

Although  women  elementary  teachers  succeeded  in  eliminating  many discriminatory  practices  in  the  workplace,  they  soon  faced  another challenge – barriers to promotion.

Prior to the consolidation of school boards in 1969, about 26 percent of  school principals were women, most working in small schools that closed with consolidation. By 1972 women’s representation in the ranks of administration, already low in relation to their numbers in the profession, had plummeted to only 8.5 percent.1 In 1980, although women made up two-thirds of the elementary teaching population, they held only 7 percent of principal and 20 percent of vice-principal positions.

One barrier to promotion was the new Principals’ Course required by the Ministry of Education. Initially, only those already holding principal positions could take it. Later, boards selected applicants to attend. While board  administrators  encouraged  many  men  teachers  to  apply,  they overlooked all but a few women.

Boards insisted that their policy was to promote the best person, but women found this difficult to believe when one out of every five men was being promoted to principal or vice-principal compared with only one out of every 50 women.2 Boards then said women didn’t want promotions, but FWTAO surveys showed women were interested in promotions but were rarely encouraged to seek them. 3

In 1980, after continued lobbying by FWTAO, the ministry finally changed the  requirements  for  admission  to  the  Principals’  Course.  Interested applicants could  apply  directly and  not  through their boards. A good indication of women’s interest was the change in attendance: in 1975, only 18 percent of the participants were women; by 1984, four years after the restrictions were removed, 33 percent of participants were women.4

The FWTAO 1980 Annual Meeting made equal opportunity for women teachers a  priority. It  aimed  to  have  affirmative  action  plans  in  place in school boards within five years. This did not mean the organization supported promoting unqualified people; it meant providing leadership training, identifying interested  candidates, developing objective criteria for promotion, and ensuring a bias-free interview process. It also included numerical goals, timetables, and a method to measure success.

FWTAO developed a variety of support materials and held workshops for  teachers  and  training  programs  for board  administrators.  The Ministry of Education encouraged boards to adopt employment equity measures  and  even  provided  incentive  funding. Nevertheless, years  of encouraging voluntary compliance did not produce results: women were still  underrepresented in  positions of  additional  responsibility, and  by the end of the decade the government passed legislation requiring school boards to have employment equity plans in place for women. In 1996, the last year for which statistics were available (principals and vice-principals were removed from the federations in 1998), women held 60.4 percent of the vice-principal and 42 percent of the principal positions in the public elementary panel.5


Equal opportunity for equity-seeking groups

The push for equal opportunity for women was soon extended to include other groups. Ontario’s population was diverse and becoming more so, but the makeup of the teaching staff in schools did not reflect this change. In the early 1990s, the Ontario government released the discussion paper Working towards Equality and announced  an  extensive consultation on the implementation of employment equity. Legislative guarantees would be extended to women, visible  minorities, Aboriginal persons, and persons with disabilities. School boards would be required to apply the Employment Equity Act and to establish policies on antiracism and ethnocultural equity. The legislation was short-lived; the Mike Harris government repealed the Act shortly after coming to power in 1995.


Pay equity

Equal-pay legislation required that people performing the same job be paid equally regardless of gender; however, it did not eliminate gender discrimination in employment. Certain jobs were considered women’s work and paid less. “Sales ladies” earned less than “stock boys,” nurses’ aides less than orderlies, and clerical workers less than machine operators. The classic example was Queen’s Park switchboard operators, women who had more education and more  skills  than  male  parking  lot  attendants but  who  were  paid  considerably  less.  In  the 1980s a female university graduate entering the workforce could expect to earn about as much as a male high school dropout.

The Ontario Liberal government passed the Pa Equit Ac in  1988.  It  was  designed  to eliminate gender discrimination by comparing predominantly  female job classes  against predominantly  male  job  classes  on  the  basis of  skill,  effort,  responsibility,  and  working conditions. Employers were required to redress wage  imbalances.  Teachers  lobbied for the legislation and applauded its proclamation.

Many people thought teachers would see no immediate benefit from the Act. After all, grid structures were gender neutral, weren’t they? An examination of  the salary differential between male  and  female  public  elementary  teachers was an eye-opener. At the time the legislation came  into  effect,  women  elementary  teachers were earning  on  average about  80  percent  of what  their  male  colleagues  did.  In  part  this occurred because there were fewer women in the higher-paying administrative  jobs;  it  was  also because women had more broken service before collective agreements provided maternity leaves and because more women taught part-time. But a  significant portion of  the disparity could be attributed  to  the prevalence of  women in  the non-degree categories. Only  about  18  percent of  public  elementary  teachers  were  in  those categories, but 96 percent of them were women. There were many reasons for this but none had anything to with skill, effort, responsibility, or working conditions. At the same time, 80 percent of  the  non-degree  teachers  in  the  secondary panel were men, all placed in the higher paying A1 category, as secondary had  no  non-degree categories.


The 1990s –Decade of Turmoil

The Social Contract

In  the  fall  of  1990, the  Liberal government was defeated by  the  New Democratic Party led  by  Bob  Rae.  Early in  their term, in  addition  to legislating employment equity, they put in place improved labour laws. Amendments to the Employment Standards Act created better maternity and  parental leave provisions,  enshrining in  law many  of  the  benefits teachers had negotiated over the years.

However, in April 1993 the government announced restraint measures to curb public sector spending and reduce the province’s deficit. Thus began the Social Contract. The government invited public sector unions and employers to negotiate a $2 billion cut in the cost of public sector wages. The education portion of that cut was $520 million.

Teacher federations joined a coalition of almost 30 public sector unions to attempt to negotiate a concerted response with the government, but negotiations were unsuccessful and the unions walked away from the table on June 3.

The government response was swift: Bill 48, The Social Contract Act, passed by a slim majority on July 7. It  forced cost-cutting measures on public sector organizations: municipalities, school boards, hospitals, and provincial departments and agencies. If the federations failed to negotiate alternative plans, teachers would be  faced with up  to 12  unpaid  leave days (known as Rae Days). As well their salaries, already frozen, would be  further reduced by the cancellation of all increments and category changes. Staffing reductions of 4.75 percent loomed and boards would have wide powers to impose other cost-saving measures.

Faced with these pressures,the unions,including the federations, returned to intensive negotiations with the government in July and August. By bargaining a framework agreement, and using surplus money in the teachers’ pension fund to offset cuts, the federations were able to reduce the number of Rae Days teachers faced.  They  also  retained  category  changes  and  gained  the ability to negotiate the return  of lost increments. Most staffing reductions were accommodated through attrition.

About 30 percent of federation members were affected by the increment freeze which, over the  course  of the Social Contract period, would have meant the equivalent of  one year’s loss of salary for  some members. Teacher federations recognized that it was unfair to have those teachers not earning the maximum bear such a larger portion of the cost reduction.  They launched an aggressive bargaining campaign to restore lost increments and to place teachers in their  rightful place on the grid. Although they were challenged further by the cuts made by the Conservatives  when they came to power in 1995, the federations were eventually successful.


A new vision for education

Bob  Rae’s NDP government also sought to  reform the education system. After 20 months of deliberation, research, and public hearings, in January 1995 it released For the Love of Learning, the 550-page report of the Royal Commission on Learning. The government response to the recommendations in the report included creation of the College of Teachers, the School Board Reduction Task Force, the Education Quality and Accountability Office and standardized testing, school councils, and much more. In June the NDP government was defeated, and it would be up to the Tories and their Common Sense Revolution to implement many of these initiatives.


Countering the Common Sense Revolution

The Mike Harris government was elected in June 1995 on the promise to cut taxes, slash government spending, and eliminate the provincial deficit. Once elected, it hit fast, hard, and everywhere. The government cut social services, slashed health care, rescinded labour laws and other progressive legislation, merged cities and  downloaded onto  them  the  cost of  many  programs previously paid for by the province – highways, social housing, and welfare, for example. They generally made Ontario a meaner place to live.

The Tories deliberately manufactured a “crisis” in education, claiming the system was in decline, that education was costing more but producing poorer results, that boards were wasting money, and that there was too much “fat in the system.” Their “cure” cut $2 billion from the education system. While they pretended to put more money into classrooms, the cuts reduced special education programs and programs like ESL, music, physical education, and many more. Support staff were fired, libraries were closed, class sizes increased, transportation, maintenance, and capital budgets were cut. School buildings started to crumble.

The  ministry  introduced   a  radically  new curriculum without providing supports, textbooks, or  training.   It  reorganized  school  boards, providing little rationale for the new boundaries. It threatened to curtail collective bargaining rights. The government took the right to levy taxes away from school boards and placed education funding solely in the hands of the province.

Over their 80 years of existence, the federations had faced many challenges, but the breadth and speed of changes in education, all done without consultation,   were   unprecedented.   Teachers found allies in other unions, parents, students, community  activists,  academics,  social  justice groups,   and   concerned   citizens.   Education became an important public issue.

While  fighting  board  efforts  to  extract concessions  from  teachers  at  the  local  level, the  federations also launched  extensive public education programs, documenting the cuts and the harm to students. Local leaders met with their MPPs to try to influence political decisions and demonstrated  outside  their  local  constituency offices when they were not invited inside.

The federations and their members participated in the Days of Action, protests held in several cities  across   the   province  to  demonstrate opposition to the cuts to education, health care, and social services. In spite of the fact that over 100,000  people  joined  the  Hamilton  protest, and over 200,000 demonstrated in Toronto, the government dismissed the protesters as members of “special interest groups” who did not speak for the average citizen.

In  education  the conflict  reached   crisis proportions  with  the  introduction  in  the  fall of  1997  of  Bill  160,  the   Educatio Quality Improvemen Act,   which   brought sweeping changes. When discussions with the government failed to  produce amendments, the federations called on their members to engage in a political protest – a 10-day walkout that shut down schools across the province. The government’s attempt to get an injunction preventing it was unsuccessful.

The court ruled the teachers’ action was not an illegal  strike  under  bargaining  legislation  and took no action to end the protest.

Although  the  protest  ended  with  desired changes to the bill, teachers’ actions created more interest in education than ever before: people who never discussed education issues were reading all 262 pages of Bill 160; previously hostile media personalities were writing supportive articles and editorials; parent groups emerged to take up the fight for quality education; labour organizations took on education issues like never before. Even though Bill 160 passed later that fall, the actions of teachers and their supportive partners helped to prevent even deeper cuts to education.


OPSMTF pushes for amalgamation

The  original  founders  of  the  Ontario  Public School  Men  Teachers’  Federation  (OPSMTF) created a  separate men’s  federation only  after they  failed  to   convince  women  elementary teachers  and  secondary  teachers  to  establish one teacher organization. However, they never abandoned their goal and over the years made several overtures to  FWTAO to  band together into  one  organization. The FWTAO, believing there were issues specific to women that were better  addressed  in  their  own  organization, rebuffed these overtures.

The 1972 OPSMTF annual meeting voted to accept women as voluntary members. In 1982 it  removed the word “Men” from its name and became  the  Ontario  Public  School  Teachers’ Federation (OPSTF).6

Unsuccessful  in  achieving amalgamation  by mutual agreement, OPSTF turned to litigation and in 1984 voted to provide financial backing to members who challenged the OTF by-laws that assigned membership to FWTAO and OPSTF. There followed a challenge under the equality provisions of  the Charter in 1985  and a charge of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code. While the Charter challenge was dismissed, a board of inquiry was struck to hear the case under the Code. In April 1994, the one-man board of inquiry deemed the OTF by-law violated the Code and gave OTF time to make necessary adjustments.


ETFO – The federation of the future

In 1995 FWTAO launched an extensive consultation with its members about creating a new federation. With  those responses in hand, FWTAO entered into negotiations with OPSTF to create a new teacher organization. Delegates to the 1997 annual meetings of the two federations approved, in principle, the constitution and  by-laws of the new organization and authorized their respective officers to sign an application to incorporate the new federation. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario was created in 1998.


Some final thoughts

Throughout their histories, the federations were always ahead of  their times, looking for ways to improve conditions for elementary teachers and protect and advance their rights in good and in challenging times. They also took up the cause of public education and the interests of students.

The federations could not have accomplished what they did over the decades without the involvement and commitment of individual members. And they won’t make progress in the future without member involvement. ETFO is your federation. Make the most of your membership. We hope this series of articles helped you find your place in your federation’s history.

Most importantly, we hope you find your place in its future.



1.  Mary Labatt, Always a Journey, FWTAO, 1993, p. 270.

2.  Labatt, p. 172.

3.  Labatt, p. 130.

4.  Labatt, p. 282.

5.  FWTAO Affirmative Action Report, 1998, p. 3.

6.  Charlotte Morgan, “Happy 75th Anniversary, OPSTF” in OPSTF News February 1996, p. 10.


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