As Ontario prepared for the coming winter, things started to heat up on the labour front in early November. Education workers of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had been bargaining with Doug Ford’s Conservative government, along with Education Minister Stephen Lecce, since the summer months, but negotiations hit a standstill as the government refused to put forward an offer the workers found acceptable.
CUPE leadership, on the other hand, ended up accepting a tentative agreement with the government in Ontario. The deal now rests with union membership, who will be voting it up or down, despite the government not meeting workers’ demands. How did this happen?
The entire chain of events leading up to this failure on the part of the union leadership has shown that, under capitalism, unions will only provide workers with so much protection. Union leadership will always put its own existence and position ahead of the needs of workers.
The government had dragged out negotiations into the new school year, believing it could use students as pawns to force a deal through. As no agreement was anywhere on the horizon at the time, CUPE leadership gave the Ford government a five-day notice of strike action.
This set off a government offensive. Stephen Lecce tabled Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, making it illegal for education workers to strike, and imposing a new four-year collective agreement on the approximately 55,000 members represented by the union.
The supposed justification for this Draconian anti-worker legislation is that the student body’s education has already been severely impacted by the pandemic over the last few years and that we should do all we can to keep students in class. Everything except presenting workers with a reasonable offer, that is.
Union members, with support from CUPE President Fred Hanh, decided this was unacceptable behaviour and that, regardless of the legislation, the union would be going on strike.
On the first day of the strike, it became clear to everyone in power the mistake the government had made with their actions. Not only did tens of thousands of the province's education workers defy the legislation by going on strike, but worker solidarity demonstrated that the situation in Ontario is a powder keg ready to explode.
Leaders and members from unions across Ontario came out on the picket lines to demonstrate solidarity with the striking CUPE membership, and the general public stood strong with the unions, many going out to the picket lines themselves despite not being directly involved.
Momentum was shifting into other industries, and it was looking like things could evolve into a general strike. An organization called “Rank and File” had even released details on Twitter regarding business unions' plans for a general strike, in solidarity against the anti-worker Bill 28.
The government quickly backtracked in fear of an agitated and mobilized labour movement. They agreed to rescind the legislation, but only if the union agreed to end the strike and return to the negotiating table.
Rather than seeing this as a clear sign of weakness, and continuing the push, union leadership took this minor concession as a victory, and told workers to return to work as they would continue legal bargaining. Bill 28 was in fact rescinded as promised, a week later, but this simply brought CUPE back to square one, at the table with a government that is unwilling to compromise and actually meet the demands of workers.
A week later, union leadership had to admit that the government had not returned to the table in good faith as promised, and gave another five-day strike notice, meaning workers would not be returning to work that following Monday.
Despite the show of strength of the first strike, the government had not raised their offer to meet workers’ demands once the strike was called off. The day before union membership was set to return to the picket lines, union leadership came out and accepted the government’s unchanged offer, pending ratification by the membership, and advised the members that the leadership believed this deal should be accepted.
Education workers could have won all of their demands, had the strike been pursued to its logical end, with the opportunity for this to roll into many other industries, helping workers across sectors. Now, education workers could get an underwhelming new four-year agreement that leadership already felt the need to reject, affecting solidarity with the rest of the labour movement still seeking a win.
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