[This is my latest journalistic piece for The Media Co-op, originally published here.]
Whose Fight Is It? Sudbury Teachers and Bill 115
by Scott Neigh
SUDBURY, ON. December 7, 2012 – With rotating strike action imminent, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has been making the case that legislation passed by Dalton McGuinty's Liberals in September is an attack on all working people and not just those in the education sector. Bill 115 gives the provincial government the power to ban strikes by education workers, imposes a two-year wage freeze, and reduces sick days.
The central slogan in ETFO's campaign is, “If you work in Ontario, this is your fight.” It has appeared in newspaper and radio ads, as well as on billboards across the province, including one near Sudbury's downtown transit terminal (see photo accompanying original article). The public impact of this campaign and what it might mean for other workers to seriously take up the struggle against Bill 115 as “[their] fight” are not entirely clear, however.
Bill 115 has been defended by the Liberals by pointing to the need to cut costs and to keep students in the classroom, thereby, according to Premier McGuinty in the Globe and Mail, “putting the needs of students first.”
Barb Blasutti, the president of the ETFO local representing teachers with the Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury, argued that the legislation should set off alarm bells for workers across the province: “If they can do it to teachers, they can do this to anyone who works in Ontario.” By imposing contract conditions rather than allowing them to be freely negotiated between unions and school boards, she said Bill 115 is an “interference in the bargaining process” and that in so doing it “gives the Minister of Education sweeping and unprecedented powers” to abrogate the rights of workers. For this reason, Blasutti argues, opposing Bill 115 “is everyone's fight because it is a fight for democracy.” ETFO and other unions representing education workers launched court challenges against the legislation in October.
In a series of person-in-the-street interviews conducted under the billboard in dowtnown Sudbury, a clear majority of respondents expressed support for the teachers. But an even larger majority of people could not identify what the billboard was about even after pausing to read it and think about it, and it was only after being given an explanation that most were able to connect it with the issue at hand and offer their opinion.
A few respondents were supportive of government action. For instance, William Palecki, 19, said, “I believe that to prevent teachers from striking is a good thing,” and cited his own experience as a highschool student on Vancouver Island during contract disputes there. Others expressed anger at both the government and the teachers – retired carnival worker Randy Burch said of politicians and the interests they represent, “They're greedy. ... If their wallet was any thicker, they'd trip over and break their arm.” At the same time, he asserted that teachers “are not taking time out for students. All they care about is the money ... the doh-ray-me, the dollar sign.”
The majority of passers by, however, expressed support for the teachers and other education workers. Alyssa Morrisette, an apprentice hairstylist, said, “I really feel for [them],” and she continued, “I really hope that things work out in their favour.” Erika Gosselin works in retail and is going to school to be a child and youth worker, and even though strike action would disrupt a placement she has scheduled for the new year, she supports the teachers and said, “The government's wrong.”
Carrie McCauley, who is currently on disability benefits, was particularly emphatic: “I'm for collective bargaining. I'm for the sign, definitely. Definitely.” She continued, “I don't work myself, but I see people that work very hard. The elementary teachers, what they go through, with students these days – they carry a lot.”
Support for the message in the billboard campaign was also significant among leaders of other workers' organizations. Warren 'Smokey' Thomas, the provincial president of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents workers in the education sector and in the public sector more broadly, said, “Everybody should be mindful of any government that attacks the legal rights of any group. ... An attack on constitutional rights is a slippery slope to attacking the rights of other groups at other times.”
Bill 115 is dangerous for all workers because “it sets precedent,” according to Richard Paquin, president of Mine-Mill/Canadian Auto Workers Local 598, which represents workers in both private and public sector settings in Sudbury but has historically been based in the mining industry. He continued, “It's our fight for sure.”
The president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council, John Closs, asserted that even non-union workers should be concerned by Bill 115. Along with pointing towards the benefits that unionized jobs bring to a community by prompting non-union employers improve conditions so they can compete for workers, and by bringing in additional money that is spent locally on goods and services that then employ other workers, he said, “To say that taking away things is going to improve people's lives doesn't make sense.” While he undesrstands it can be “tempting” to envy jobs in sectors where unions have made gains over the years, he said that instead of supporting governments and employers in taking those gains away, “I'd rather say, 'Let's get something more for everyone.' The money taken from these [education] workers is not going to be given to non-union, private sector workers.”
Opinions were mixed about the way the current ETFO campaign delivers that message, however. Valerie Trudeau, the president of the council that brings together Sudbury locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, is very supportive of the sentiment expressed on the billboard but said, “I don't know if the message is a clear one for getting out how the Bill affects everyone.”
Laurentian University labour studies professor Reuben Roth was also of the opinion that the message did not seem to work the way it had been intended. However, he said that the campaign as a whole seemed to be “a bid for eliciting some form of sympathy via an appeal to the general public's class consciousness” and that such efforts “can and do work.”
He said that while media-based campaigns can be useful, “I believe that ETFO should use their members as 'shock troops' who could go door-knocking or calling from a phone bank, just as if it were election time. Workers/parents/voters/the public need to hear the story first, and then be convinced to support ETFO in its fight against the McGuinty government's destruction of civil rights in Ontario.”
Opinions about how non-education workers can contribute to the fight against Bill 115 were also mixed. Most of the sympathetic passers-by who were interviewed framed their support in relatively passive ways. The billboard itself points people towards StopBill115.ca, a site which presents ETFO's position in more detail and encourages people to sign an online petition. Blasutti hopes the campaign will be a “catalyst for conversation,” while Paquin wants people to “force the government to re-look at this bill” through contacting their MPPs.
Closs argued for seeing opposition to the legislation as part of resisting “a broader austerity agenda” that involves attacks on workers in the public and private sectors, privatization, and cuts to services that ordinary people depend on. “We all have to pull together as working people in our community to resist,” he said, and pointed towards a provincial initiative bringing together labour and community groups in Ontario under the banner of the Ontario Common Front (OCF). This formation is “a coalition of 100 community and labour groups [that] was born early this year in response to the Ontario Government's deep budget cuts,” according to OCF steering committee member Nancy Hutchison in a recent release. She said, “Now we are coming together to challenge the draconian Bill 115 and to make income inequality a top issue in Ontario's next election.”
While there will be a Sudbury meeting in the new year to begin the work of putting together a local chapter of the OCF, Closs also encouraged people to support existing, organic efforts to create alliances across sectors and movements. Along with a plan to create a worker education centre in the city, he cited the participation of some labour activists in the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, a direct action anti-poverty group, and that group's recent collaborations with the North Shore Tribal Council on questions of cuts by the Liberal government to the Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit.
However, he said that though such coalition work is necessary, it is slow. “I think it's going to take awhile for people to understand that we are all in this together and that we can resist the austerity agenda.”
Scott Neigh is a writer and an activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He recently published two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. He blogs regularly on social and political topics and is the parent of a nine year-old who is taught by members of ETFO.