Almost 20,000 elementary school teachers from across Ontario covered the lawns at Queen’s Park in a massive demonstration against the McGuinty government’s attempt to legislate a new concession contract. People were commenting that they hadn’t seen such a large protest at the provincial legislature since the G20, and many were wearing red squares inspired by the Quebec students.
Interestingly, the teachers’ unions were strong supporters of the Liberal Party in the recent provincial election. Clearly political support for the party one day does not make anyone immune from the effects of the austerity agenda the next. An important lesson learned.
As I walked from the Steelworkers Hall to join the rally, I passed a small group of women heading in the same direction. One of them shouted out, “Thanks for your solidarity!” and then addressing her fellow teachers said, “Wasn’t I just talking about how the Steelworkers came out to support us against the Harris government. Well they’re doing it again. We’re not alone!”
Steel wasn’t the only union there. The Canadian Autoworkers, Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, CUPE, CUPW were all present, showing support for the women and men who teach and care for their children. OPSEU, which is facing hard bargaining and threats of layoffs and privatization, did not appear to mobilize for the demonstration in any numbers. Individual activists were there, of course, showing their support for the teachers.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario has been having stewards’ meetings during the summer and received a 93 per cent strike vote for a political day of action. It was clear from the numbers who had rallied that the union has a very engaged membership at this moment. Hopefully they will put pressure on the leadership to push back hard against the concessions.
There is an anger that is building among people from different sectors of the economy, and seemingly a willingness to fight back if today’s demonstration is any indicator. It is critical that the teachers’ unions do all that they can to connect with students and parents.
The attack on the teachers is part of an ongoing campaign to ratchet down wages, cut services and contract out. The Ontario Common Front, a coalition of community and labour organizations, just released a damning report that documented the growing gap between rich and poor. Wages have stagnated or dropped. The province has the lowest number of hospital beds per capita and the highest university fees across the country.
Part-time and precarious work is increasing while the wealthy are enjoying lavish incomes. Corporate taxes keep going down and the crisis is being taken out on the backs of working people and the poor. This times it’s the teachers’ turn, with their collective bargaining rights being taken away and concessions being imposed.
The anger the teachers feel was palpable at the Queen’s Park rally. They feel betrayed and insulted by the legislation and, as one columnist said, this is a warning to all workers of what is to come. The Ontario Conservatives are pushing a plan to impose “right to work” legislation as we have seen in so many US states.
At the recent Bruce Springsteen concert, many of the songs reflected the working class anger that is showing itself across North America—from the Wisconsin mass protest, to the Occupy movement, to strikes and lockouts, as we have seen at Rio Tinto. “First they destroyed our factories and then they took our homes…On bankers hill the party is going strong, but down below we’re shackled and drawn.”
But there is also the hope of a better day in lyrics such as “There’s a new day coming…I can see the light…Send the robber barons straight to hell.” This anger has to be channeled into a sustained fightback, as we are seeing around the world. Let’s hope the teachers can give a lead here in Ontario.