City Hall

This morning, a few hundred teachers and allies rallied downtown. Gathering in front of City Hall, the crowd heard speeches then marched along Main, down Hughson (pausing for more speeches outside Andrea Horwath’s office) concluding at Gore Park for hot cocoa. The speakers, always a labour rally staple, were some of the best I’ve heard in years, including not just teachers but a wide range of others, from School Board trustees to anti-poverty activists and representatives of Six Nations. Along with the warm weather, frequent honks and amazing short-notice turnout, it all combined to provide an amazingly high-spirited rally.

Across Ontario right now, schools are gripped by strikes and walkouts in opposition to the Provincial government’s Bill 115 (text). The bill, which freezes wages, cuts benefits and bans strikes, has infuriated teachers over the past months. In response, both elementary and secondary teachers have been staging short rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns in boards across the region, joined by a growing number of student walkouts, including hundreds Hamilton’s Sir John A MacDonald and Delta students this past Monday, and our Elementary teachers are slated to hold a one-day strike Monday.

Outside Andrea Horwath's Office on Hughson

Outside Andrea’s Office

What McGuinty accomplished with Bill 115, one of the last passed before he prorogued Parliament, was effectively pre-emptive back-to-work legislation. It interfered with contract talks before bargaining had even begun, and in the process seriously offended teachers. Given the history of teachers’ unions, this wasn’t likely to go down without a fight, and it’s quickly escalating as the strike deadline approaches.

Unlike previous labour strife, like the battle over Bill 160 in the Harris years, opponents have been much less successful at isolating and demonizing teachers. With students walking out and boards passing resolutions against the bill, the province is finding itself with a lot less friends this time around. It’s hard to have sympathy, I suppose, when these legislators haven’t shown up at their own workplace in months.

Also favouring teachers is the recent history of education-related activism. Similar battles with BC teachers didn’t help with the falling popularity of the province’s Liberal government. Teachers strikes in Chicago, similarly, quickly turned into a much broader movement and successfully challenged the city’s government. Then there’s the student strike in Quebec this past spring and summer, which turned into a resounding defeat for former Liberal Premier Jean Charest. And of course, there’s what happened in Oxaca, Mexico in 2006, where protests by their teachers’ union escalated into a (deadly) battle between the state and popular forces for control of Oxaca City. Simply put, teachers’ unions have become the ‘natural predator’ of provincial governments across the continent.

Gore Park

Gore Park

As with most battles like it, Bill 115 represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Austerity policies are being implemented at the federal and provincial levels, tossing thousands out of work and cutting many more off benefits such as EI. Most of those affected by these cuts don’t have anywhere near the level of union representation or influence that teachers do, making this fight and others like it a pivotal battle. It also illustrates why it’s so important that teachers are connecting with other affected groups – workers, First Nations, the unemployed etc (many of whom showed a presence today). Solidarity is the only way to combat agendas on this scale, and I’m heartened to see that it’s happening.

I passed the age, long ago, where more of my friends teach high school than attend it. Having very close friends and even house-mates who teach, I’ve seen how brutal a career it can be. I may have an incredibly (physically) taxing job, but the exhaustion I’ve seen in friend’s eyes after a long day in front of classes or grading papers is just as real. Perhaps the saddest of all, I’ve known too many teachers who’ve literally begged their kids not to follow in their footsteps. These aren’t “spoiled” or “entitled” workers, they’re people we depend on to help raise our kids.

Though I’ll always have my suspicions about state-sponsored education, it won’t be improved through cuts and neglect, or broad, sweeping policy changes from the province (standardized tests and curricula, etc). Like any organization, schools need input from those most affected, and that means the people who spend time their daily – teachers, students and support staff along with parents and community members. This isn’t just about budgets and salaries, it’s a question of who controls schools and education itself.