Fighting to Teach: Rank-and-File Educators Organizing in Ontario

An Interview with Sarah Vance

Fighting to Teach

Rank-and-File Educators Organizing in Ontario

An interview with Sarah Vance

Sarah Vance works for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) as a high school teacher. Sarah is an active member of her union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), and she co-chairs the Toronto District Communications and Political Action Committee. Sarah previously organized with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) for the better part of a decade.

In the summer of 2020, Sarah spoke with Ryan Hayes and Mariful Alam about her work and observations about teacher unions, the formation of Ontario Education Workers United (OEWU), an autonomous network of union members from the three major education unions in Ontario, and lessons she learned from the OSSTF’s province-wide bargaining campaign in 2020.

Mariful Alam (MA): How did you become involved with the OSSTF? Was there anything in particular that sparked your interest?

I was actually involved with OSSTF; I sat on their women’s committee several years ago, but I quit, and I promised myself I would never be involved with OSSTF politics again. However, once Doug Ford was elected, I felt a deep sense of personal responsibility to become involved once again. I think OSSTF is an extraordinarily powerful union; it has 60,000 members. We were well aware that education was going to be one of the major priorities on the Conservatives’ chopping block. Education has such a massive impact on the common good and the lives of students and families, especially those who are already extremely marginalized in society. So I felt like I had a personal responsibility to harness power where I have access, and that is within the union.

Ryan Hayes (RH): Could you tell us a bit about the structure of the OSSTF from an activist perspective?

So in the OSSTF, we have our provincial leadership, and then we have our districts. Toronto is the biggest district in Ontario; we have around 6,000 members. Within that district, we’re still answerable to the provincial executive. The local body has a certain degree of power and they do local bargaining, but particularly under this government, one of the strategies has been to try to make as many issues as possible strictly provincial, so that has taken away a lot of power around our local organizing in terms of negotiations and collective agreements. It’s very centralized, so any sort of overarching non-local issues, which are most of them now, are decided upon by the provincial executive and our president.

Within the Toronto district, we have standing committees on a variety of different issues. Historically those committees have virtually no power. In the last few years we elected a new president for our district, Leslie Wolfe, but up until her election the local committees were not allowed to decide how to spend their own budgets of a grand total of about $3,000 a year—so very little. We weren’t allowed to endorse things. We had very little autonomy, but we have slightly more now. And while we do try to use it, our decisions can still ultimately be overturned by the district executive.

RH: Can you explain why you and your colleagues saw the need for an autonomous network, Ontario Education Workers United?

There’s a number of different reasons why. One of the reasons is that there is so little time put into the committees, and we’re not able to accomplish very much. We meet once a month, which in a rapidly changing political environment does not allow us to respond adequately to issues as they emerge. Furthermore, the most important piece is that we were very much engaged, and are still engaged, in a campaign that involves people from a variety of different unions. Staying in our own silo as OSSTF members, we felt as though we were really missing a critical piece of creating a coordinated message and complementing one another’s struggles. So for us, Ontario Education Workers United (OEWU) allowed us a space to come together with elementary teachers, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members, and Catholic school teachers.

That said, there is some degree of animosity between the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the OSSTF secular teachers’ union based on negotiations that have happened in the past and the feeling that traditionally OECTA has sold OSSTF members out at the bargaining table. This is what happened in the last round of bargaining and it caused a lot of deep-seated anger. Our hope was to start to bridge some of those gaps. In order to be able to do that, we needed a fresh environment and we needed something that didn’t have the political baggage of a lot of our formal union structures.

So with the OEWU, there’s the ability to sidestep bureaucracy and get things done and the ability to have independence and autonomy. We make our own decisions, and while we are supportive of our union structures, we’ve also made decisions that have been challenging to those structures as well. So when we have wanted to push past the line that our official structures are maintaining, we’re allowed to do that because, as grassroots activists, we don’t have to hold that line. And then of course the collaboration across different unions and the ability to work with community partners and with parent organizers is important.

MA: I am curious about some of the differences between what the rank-and-file is demanding and what the provincial leadership is negotiating. Could you speak to some of those issues going into this most recent round of bargaining?

First and foremost, I believe our union has not historically done a very good job of fully understanding what its membership wants. So there’s a lack of information. The union has tended not to have deep consultations with members, and instead operates from a bit of an “expert” perspective. This means that people who have the top union positions and are in positions of authority tend to be people who have been teachers or been in the system for quite a long time and feel as though they have a strong sense of what the membership wants—without necessarily having asked members.

So we did have a bargaining priorities survey, for instance, going into bargaining. But the scope of that survey was extremely limited. There have been great efforts on the part of grassroots organizers and people who hold positions of power within their districts to try to get our union to embrace mapping, a strategy informed by Jane McAlevey through her organizing in the United States. One of the key elements in this style of organizing is real mapping of membership. Our union has been quite resistant to it. Provincial motions were passed signalling that the union was interested in grassroots workplace-by-workplace “mapping” initiatives, however no comprehensive plan was developed or implemented.

So I think that’s issue number one, a failure to understand the importance of reaching out to the entire membership to find out exactly how they feel and what they want. We’ve been told on numerous occasions from our local district president that education workers are small “c” conservatives. So there tends to be a very negative perception of who education workers are and what they are capable of. The starting point is that education workers will never respond to something that they perceive as pushing the envelope too much, being too radical, being outside of people’s comfort zones. I have a huge issue with that obviously.

MA: Could you describe the evolution of the 2020 bargaining campaign? It seems initially the union was in a very strong position around the No Cuts to Education campaign, and the leadership made a commitment to hear rank-and-file perspectives. There was also more widespread public support for teachers than before, but then the pandemic hit. How did those events unfold and what kind of impact did they have on bargaining?

One thing I want to underscore is that this campaign, the campaign for public education provincially, was influenced and propelled by grassroots organizing. Originally, there was a desire to frame the issues from the perspective of how cuts to education negatively impact students and families, and there was a desire—to a greater or lesser extent depending on the local district—to involve activists in a way that hadn’t been done before. So in our Toronto local for instance, shortly after the election of Doug Ford, we had a significant number of people who were known to be activists that were paid to take time to do some deeper thinking about the Ford government, its agenda, and how to begin countering it. And there was also a desire on the part of the local to encourage people to take grassroots local actions.

So some of that work was happening, and that work was really strong. However, it was also deeply influenced and propelled by the fact that there was a lot going on outside of the union. So within OEWU, and in relationship with parent organizers, we were able to develop and support massive province-wide walk-outs that happened in over 600 schools. That was done independently, and it had an influence on the broader strategy. Outreach and engagement looked like a wide variety of things at various different times: large scale forums, sometimes with hundreds of attendees, smaller organizing meetings, outreach in person, through workplaces, social media, sign-on letters (e.g. our pledge calls on union leadership to take meaningful action on various fronts, mobilizing against politicians), surveys, connecting through face-to-face political actions, organizing “train the trainer” style workshops, connecting within locals and local committees, etc. So there’s a thread that is not visible to the outside public eye in which a lot of the work we did as grassroots activists and as parent organizers was really influential in pushing the campaign to develop the degree of public support and the number of actions that we were able to have.

In the last major education labour disruption, which was under Mike Harris in the 1990s, people walked the line illegally. So they took a huge risk. They walked the line for two weeks, they were not supported by the public, and lots of people who are still education workers have horror stories about how awful it was to try to walk the line and be insulted by members of the public walking by. In the end of that struggle, the Catholic teachers’ union folded, the OSSTF was left in a position of feeling quite powerless, and they didn’t achieve anything. So there was a perspective going into this, that it would be nice to have parental support but that it was really never going to happen. So the outside organizing that happened by parents in particular and in conjunction with a lot of grassroots activists was really essential in changing the whole framework for what this struggle was and what people thought it might be capable of.

As we entered bargaining, we built an extremely strong campaign. We were getting very high levels of support, we had a lot of support from staff despite going without pay, being out on strike pay. And then a couple things happened. The first thing that happened was that the Catholic teachers’ association folded again, and that happened before the pandemic. Just before the pandemic struck, OECTA signed a tentative agreement with the government in which they accepted a variety of cuts to education, and that agreement was ratified at the beginning of the pandemic with over 90 percent support. The elementary teachers also took a deal that was also advanced just before the pandemic, and they signed off on that with over 90 percent support as well.

Most of the province’s cuts to education were aimed at the secondary school level. The elementary teachers got a reasonably good deal, the Catholic teachers signed off on concessions, and so already at the beginning of the pandemic we were left in a situation where we’re in a global pandemic, there are all sorts of fears and issues with that, and we’re the last major union standing in this struggle. I think the combination of those two things led to a great deal of fear. The leadership expressed that this was an unwinnable situation, that the public would not stand for further action around education, that there is no way there would be a public appetite for strikes, especially since their kids were forced to stay home for an undetermined amount of time. Furthermore, in the face of the economic hardship that people in Ontario now find themselves in, there’s no way there would be public support for education workers seeking anything that might be perceived as a gain for ourselves as workers.

So because of the combination of those things, OSSTF leadership signed off on a deal that did include some cuts, and that’s when we mounted a Vote No campaign.

MA: That was going to be my next question, could you talk about the Vote No campaign?

We’re in the midst of this pandemic, things are changing rapidly, our work environment has dramatically changed, and we are literally receiving emails at all hours of the day with complete changes to instructions with what we are to do, because of a press conference or what have you. So people’s capacities have obviously been much lower as we struggle through our personal circumstances as well. We felt that while our union was not only introducing an offer to the membership, but also encouraging us to ratify the offer, that it was really important to have an explanation of why it might still make sense to vote no. We put the materials together to make them broadly accessible, and then as individuals many of us came forward and said “look these are my personal reasons that I’m going to be voting no.”

RH: You explained the role of activists and OEWU in trying to expand the frame of the discussion, to deepen and widen participation, and the limits of a strictly legalistic boardroom collective bargaining model when faced with a very right-wing government focused on austerity. What are the lessons learned from this campaign? Moving forward, if Ford or another austerity government gets elected, what kind of work would be required to create an even more powerful rank-and-file movement?

I believe that we’ve shown that it’s essential to be able to work independently as grassroots activists. I believe that it has also been shown that activists can walk that fine line between supporting the overarching goals of the union while maintaining our autonomy. We can let things go when it makes sense, and take a stand in order to advance the common goals. I think that has been very important and it will be important in future struggles.

One of the things about teachers’ unions is that people enter the profession and they tend to be members of this union for 20-30 years or more. And so, it’s very difficult for people who don’t have many years of experience to prove themselves within the union to gain any position of formalized power. There’s this sense of, only if you’ve been a member, or a branch president, or a member of your staffing committee, or a member of provincial committees for 10, 15, or 20 years, then maybe you can run for a leadership position. That is quite constrictive.

We are very much a service union, and OSSTF tends to do a very good job being a service union. So, relatively speaking, we have a good collective agreement, we are well-paid, we have a good benefits package, and we tend to get good representation when grievances are advanced. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system by any means, but it is a system that people are invested in. And because people are really invested in maintaining the service capacity of the union, it also means anything outside of that could be understood as a potential threat to these services and is devalued. So that is a concern.

In terms of lessons going forward, a service-based union is going to have more and more grievances to deal with because of the changing context of our work in an age of austerity. So, as classes get larger, and administrators get more authoritarian, we lose professional discretion in the way we do our job and we have more need for service, meaning there’s less possibility of deeper political organizing. I think this makes the independence of OEWU, and creating a structure that grassroots activists can tap into, much more important. Personally, I believe now that we have a collective agreement, in some ways it clears a little space for us to return to grassroots organizing that is not forced to be done in conjunction with the broader power bases of our union. For example, one of the things that we conceded in this agreement, unfortunately, is mandatory e-learning. So, in three years, all Ontario high school students will have to take two mandatory e-learning courses. For a host of different reasons, this is very bad for students. It is especially bad for marginalized students, and it also opens the door to the privatization of education in a way that is going to be quite decisive.

The fact that we have a collective agreement means that in the future we can return to a real grassroots campaign that works broadly with parent organizers and students to create a massive opt-out campaign, so that in actuality, the program becomes defunct.

Now that we have some formalized parameters, the union is going to turn their attention predominantly toward the next election, and we’re going to turn our attention to opposing mandatory e-learning and continue a grassroots struggle. In doing so, we will have a lot more room to maneuver than we had during this last period.

RH: Can OEWU act as a bridge for building stronger alliances with members of OECTA to prevent history from repeating itself?

Yeah, but the difficulty, obviously, is that people feel a profound sense of betrayal between the unions. It takes years to recover from that damage to even start having those conversations again. So that’s one of the real difficulties with this. Even during this past strike period, as I was walking the picket lines with older teachers who were on strike 25 years ago under Harris, there was still a lot resentment and a lot of cynicism about how things would go because of the belief that the Catholic teachers’ leadership would end up selling us out. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. We made some really good baby steps, and the union’s leadership was saying: “We’re working together as a group of unions better than we ever have before. We’re stronger, we’re on the same page, we’ve got each other’s backs, we are organizing actions in tandem.” And so, the fact that it fell apart… there’s not an easy solution.

We continue to put out the politic that we cannot tolerate accusing all Catholic education workers within that union of being guilty of not having stood with us because we know in reality that many grassroots Catholic education workers did stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and they’re not responsible for the agreement their leadership came back with. But honestly, we need to be able to have a greater degree of control over our own union of 60,000 people. That’s more than enough we have to deal with already without having to also manage all the challenges inherent with coordinating with another union that has historically been more conservative.

RH: We are experiencing a long overdue moment of reckoning, in terms of what we can do specifically to address anti-Black racism and racism in general within society. What is the state of this conversation internally within the union? Can you speak to some of the challenges for racialized teachers in terms of getting involved with the union, or even being heard by the leadership?

I’m a white lady, so I can only speak to that from a very outsider perspective. We have seen examples time and again of overt racism within our union, and systemic racism in our union structures. It happens on an ongoing basis, it is deeply hurtful, deeply alienating. We already work in a job environment in which racialized workers are very much underrepresented in the field, and already deal with a tremendous amount of racism within workplace environments. Consider the challenges any union member faces in becoming meaningfully involved and gaining power within union structures, which is tremendously difficult during the best of times, and then add to that the fact that people are overtly and systemically discriminated against. I could cite many recent examples of that happening in tragic and unacceptable fashions. It’s tough. It is a damn miracle that anybody sticks around because there’s just so much bullshit that people contend with on an ongoing basis. I don’t really know what to say about that. The union has to do better. There are lots of conversations happening right now, but I feel a certain sense of cynicism, and I think if I were a racialized person I might feel a much greater sense of cynicism as to what will materialize that makes a meaningful difference.

MA: On that note, how can we push Canadian labour leaders to build links with Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other emerging movements? We depend on each other—our struggles are shared. Why do you think there isn’t an emphasis from leadership in building these networks?

My feeling is that there is such a deep history of structural racism within the Canadian labour movement that we have a long way to go to create an anti-oppressive movement that truly embraces the work of dismantling anti-Black racism and all other forms of oppression. But truthfully I think the best thing we can do is work toward this notion of the common good, right? Which means that, as education workers, we don’t simply operate as people who are seeking out a contract that benefits us personally. All of our working conditions are interwoven with the life conditions of the students that we support. We also have a responsibility to be honest and reflective, and to seek to advance those conditions. Within the education system, anti-Black racism is absolutely ripe—everyday, in every school, in every classroom it’s playing out before our eyes, and we are oftentimes very much a part of that.

Personally, I think it’s about situating myself in the here-and-now, in real pragmatic struggles for advancement, and letting that union structure catch up with us. Case in point, there’s a campaign right now to get police out of all schools in Ontario. The campaign has been successful in Toronto, and now they are attempting to take it province-wide. That’s a pragmatic, real demand that would have a significant impact on the well-being and safety of Black and racialized students in our schools. That’s a campaign we can be a part of in a meaningful way, and as we advance that campaign, and potentially win, those union structures will catch up with us.

In the campaign against Ford around education cuts, one of the big lessons learned was that we used the positive relationships we had with the national and provincial union bodies and just got started on the work through OEWU, and they ended up catching up. So, I think the same approach is useful in terms of these broader forms of oppression, and in terms of moving beyond what the union thinks it is capable of. Sometimes, I think within those silos of the internal union bureaucracy and structures, all the myriad different things they have to think about, I think it’s very easy to lose sight of what is possible. If we go out and do more than what we think is possible, then they will respond to us and build those relationships. *