11. 6. 2022

Defiant Ontario Education Workers are Showing Us How It’s Done

The Editors

The Ontario Conservative government’s new strikebreaking legislation, Bill 28, has been unleashed against Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers in particular, but it’s a threat to all workers in the province and the country. By effectively making it illegal for workers to strike when the state disapproves, undermining a right that since 2015 has been
deemed by the courts to be protected by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Ford and his ruling-class backers have catapulted Ontario’s workers into a new situation that’s also a very old one: where the idea that the law protects workers from their bosses is unmasked as the fiction it is; where the state is revealed, plainly, to be a force acting for the dominant class, not a neutral instrument; and where the balance of power between capital and labour is decided not by professionals in the courts but by masses of people in the streets. In this context, CUPE’s defiance – its commitment to strike despite the government’s bullying, and to absorb the staggering fines with which the government has threatened both the union and individual workers – is hugely significant.

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen unions unable or unwilling to take militant action against policies of mass infection that have forced workers into deadly, disabling workplaces. Union officials haven’t been prepared to accept the huge fines that the state would inflict on them as punishment for workers striking outside of the narrow limits determined by collective bargaining cycles; levels of organization and political consciousness among the rank-and-file of unions in the province are generally underdeveloped, such that for many workers, even the possibility of collective rank-and-file militancy in defiance of the union leadership hasn’t seemed imaginable. Those in power have done more or less as they’ve liked, and those without power – or with enormous latent power, but not organized into a fighting force – have suffered what they must.

The CUPE education workers’ strike is a sign that this state of affairs may be changing. While cautious optimism is prudent, the strike is important not least as a force for stirring the spirit, a sudden revelation of militant possibilities that had seemed, just weeks ago, beyond the pale. People on the Internet like to call for general strikes, and seasoned organizers tend to reply that a general strike isn’t born of desire alone but requires years of patient organizing on the ground. That’s true. But what that wisdom doesn’t quite capture is strikes’ possibility of contagion, the accelerant virality of the strike’s defiance. Something powerful can happen to the popular imagination when working-class people start to take history into their own hands, tap into their experience of years of escalating violent dispossession, and show that the world can be other than what the cops and bosses say it is. From the general strikes that swept Canada in 1919 to the popular uprisings against patriarchal state domination currently roiling Iran, there are abundant examples of proletarian struggles lancing like sudden wildfires across an arid, flammable status quo.

By law, unions in Canada are forbidden to strike in solidarity with other workers, constrained instead to strike only at appointed times to demand improvements in their own wages and working conditions. But by invoking the notwithstanding clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives the state a get-out-of-Charter-free card, the Ontario Conservative government has torn up the legal framework that imposes those constraints. Gone is the promise that if unions and workers just “behave,” they’ll get to collectively bargain for their own interests to the full extent the law allows. Already Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) education workers have walked off the job in solidarity with their CUPE siblings. Who’s next? 

The crucial question now is whether such solidarity actions can spread. It’ll take disruptive action like sympathy strikes and blockades to make the government reverse course. Pickets and demonstrations are crucial; they can and should be amplified by coordinated refusals of unsafe work and other walkouts. The key is collective action that starts to spread and escalate – which can happen only when workers activate connections within their workplaces and in their communities. And as strikes by teachers’ unions in Chicago, Los Angeles, West Virginia, and elsewhere have shown us, social reproductive workers are often well-placed to bring communities together in struggle. This kind of solidarity is especially important in light of the relentless attack on sites of social reproduction – education, healthcare, housing – by reactionaries in Ontario (and beyond) who purport to be acting in the interest of children, families, and workers.

It’s possible that the CUPE strike will remain a brief protest that doesn’t spread. Yet while the outcome of education workers’ bravery matters enormously, so does the very fact of their fuck you to Ford. As the labour movement enters what may be a new period of struggle, one in which the ruling class attempts to resolve on workers’ backs the contradictions of capitalist crisis – inflation most of all – and abandons any pretence of safeguarding civil liberties, CUPE workers’ defiance models a way forward. The pandemic, with its propaganda-greased normalization of mass disablement, has reinforced capitalist governments’ belief that they can get away with anything. Education workers in Ontario are showing us how the working class, everywhere the majority, has the power to prove those tyrants wrong.