Don’t Believe the Hype: Misreporting the Teachers’ Struggle

by Jordy Cummings

Across Ontario, teachers have been mounting resistance to the newly enacted provincial bill 115, which effectively removes the right of collective bargaining and the right to strike of all public sector workers.  The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) are in a legal strike position and as of Monday Dec. 10, are staging rolling one day strikes, while the (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) have launched a coordinated work-to-rule campaign, cutting extra-curricular activities as well as any voluntary work.

Students supporting teachers, demonstrating against Bill 115 (photo from cbc.ca)

In response, media coverage has been mixed. The worst has been 680 News, a radio station marketed towards the working class, as it spreads outright misinformation to affected communities.  Their report on December 10 portrayed the various high school student walk-outs across the province as “neutral” and a protest against “both sides”, when in reality the high school students were standing with their teachers against the aggression of the McGuinty government. The portrayed high school students as the “silent majority” being held hostage by greedy teachers and government bureaucrats.  Poorly edited and likely out of context soundbites included one student who claimed to be “caught in the middle” and another complaining that no one was “putting students first”. This is a common move to turn public sector service recipients against public sector service providers and their unions. Recent examples include the drawn-out lockout of education workers by York University in the winter of 2008, that ended with the increasingly common tactic of back-to-work legislation.

When the state can use back-to-work legislation at a moment’s notice this greatly weakens labour’s side at the bargaining table and makes the strike tactic a risky one, given the huge fines that a labour union can be charged with for wildcat action. To add to their dishonesty, 680 News has been portraying itself as a resource for parents and families, even publishing a FAQ file on their website.  While again feigning neutrality, the file is designed to portray this as essentially a struggle between union leaders and education bureaucrats.  (http://www.680news.com/news/local/article/428317–faq-bill-115-teachers-job-action-explained

Sadly, there is a certain truth to this.  Given the unprecedented measures outlined in bill 115, it is nothing short of remarkable that the public sector unions of Ontario have only now just begun – particularly within CUPE –attempting to develop a fightback for their basic rights.  Contrast this with Wisconsin, where similar legislation provoked an immediate occupation of the state capital, first by publicly paid teaching assistants, then by others.  As labour writer Doug Nesbitt points out, the entire strategy of the union leadership  is to wait on a court challenge to Bill 115, rather than organize their members to engage in struggle.  Thus a lot of the campaign rhetoric is focusing on how this is a violation of charter rights.  Yet, as has been shown by the BC nurses charter challenge, an individual judge finding that back to work legislation violates the charter has not stopped the state, from legislating both public and private sector workers back to work.  Depending entirely on a legal strategy is misguided at best.

The small but feisty  band of teacher-activists attempting to radicalize this struggle, as well as those in the broader public sector (from community centres to universities), have to unite and fight Bill 115.  It is not merely “undemocratic” in the narrow technical sense of parliament, but if overturned and discredited would be a victory that will strengthen workers’ and community capacities to defend against the austerity onslaught, and, one hopes, move from defensive struggles to keep what little services we have, to offensive struggles to build something better.  After all, we have a world to win.

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