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Teachers vs. austerity

Andrew Hodge, Pam Johnson

April 27, 2012

From BC to Ontario, teachers are in the cross-hairs of the austerity agenda, but are starting to fight back.

In BC, teachers staged a three-day strike last month and are continuing to challenge the government’s attacks on their working conditions, and students’ learning conditions (for more information and analysis, follow Staffroom Confidential, the blog of BC teacher and labour activist, Tara Ehrcke).

In Ontario, up to 20,000 workers rallied at Queen’s Park on April 21 against McGuinty’s austerity budget. A major target of McGuinty’s austerity budget is teachers—a group that gave huge support to his last election campaign—so teachers were out in full force at the rally. One teacher reported that almost 30 per cent of teachers from his school attended the rally. This speaks to an appetite to fight the attacks.

The Ontario budget calls for a wage freeze, an effective wage cut the will cost junior teachers up to $85,000 in lost wages. All teachers will lose the option to exchange unused sick days for money upon retirement. This “perk”, as some have called it, saves the school board that would otherwise go to pay for substitutes. Sick days will be dropped to six per teacher.

In addition, the government is now openly saying they wish to re-evaluate the pension set-up, with an eye to future sustainability, which is code to call for conversion of a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension plan (a glorified RRSP).

Ontario teachers have not struck against their employer, the school board, since 1976, before most teachers were working. The walk-outs against Mike Harris in the mid-1990’s had the support of the employer—board members and school trustees brought coffee and donuts to teachers then. The situation will be different this time.

So there are questions about how prepared the teachers unions are to wage a fight. Communication networks in locals need to be revitalized and strategies planned to mount a campaign to push back cuts and possibly to strike. Intermediate steps like information pickets, town hall meetings, etc, will be needed to prepare and give confidence teachers.

But there is no question that a significant number of teachers are ready to begin this fightback. One OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation) member who attended the rally said teachers are more open to the idea that “we have to push our own leaders to act now instead of in six months time.”

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