The 2022 Ontario education workers’ strike has divided workers over whether they won a victory or suffered a defeat. Despite the threat of a general strike, union officials did not deliver what union members needed. Understanding what happened is essential to unite the labor movement and win the class war.
Education workers form the backbone of the Ontario school system. They include education assistants, early childhood educators, informational technology workers, cafeteria workers, librarians, secretaries, and custodians.
Fifty-five thousand education workers are organized in the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). This umbrella union consists of 67 locals in some 2,000 schools. Laura Walton is president of OSBCU and served as lead negotiator during the dispute.
OSBCU is a sector of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), representing support workers in schools, universities, government, the medical system, and social services across Canada.
The employer is the provincial government, ruled by the Conservative Party since 2018. The province sets the budget for the public-school system and negotiates contracts with four teachers’ unions and two support-staff unions (CUPE and OPSEU). Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce represented the government.
I have to work two jobs to make enough money to survive. – School Secretary
Every year they add more and more work loads onto us without any wage increases. – Education Assistant
CUPE workers are the lowest-paid in the school system, averaging just $39,000 ($28,882 USD) a year. Over the past 10 years, their average wage has fallen 19 percent. Fifty-one percent work a second job to make ends meet, and 91 percent report financial hardship.
During its first term in office (2018-2022) and in the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Conservative government cut public education an average $800 per student. This amounted to a total loss of $1.6 billion from public schools already so under-funded that they cannot hire enough staff to keep classrooms clean and meet students’ needs.
Despite a $2.1 billion surplus, the government rejected the union’s demand for a catch-up wage raise as “not fiscally sustainable.” Instead, it offered a miserly 1.25 to 2 percent increase in each year of a four-year contract. It also rejected all union demands to improve working conditions, provide basic benefits, reduce class size, and expand student services.
When the province refused to budge from its hardline position, union officials asked members for a strike mandate to press their case. In early October, a record 82 percent of the members voted, with more than 96 percent voting to strike. This magnificent turnout testified to the union’s deep organizing campaign to engage and mobilize the members.
Still, negotiations stalled.
On October 31st, the province ended negotiations and tabled Bill 28 which imposed the government’s terms on education workers and stripped them of the right to strike. In just three days, Bill 28 was voted into law. If the strike proceeded, the union could be fined up to $500,000 per day, with additional fines of up to $4,000 per worker per day.
Bill 28 violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and the right to collective bargaining. To shield the Bill from legal challenge, the province invoked Section 33 of the Charter that allows governments to legally violate such rights.
Bill 28 was a death-blow against the union. Why have a union if employers can dictate the terms of employment and criminalize those who protest?
Courageously defying the law, OSBCU struck on Friday, November 4th. Workers were directed not to picket their schools, but to rally in front of the legislature and local offices of members of parliament. These rallies were well-attended and spirited.
In the background, public-sector and private-sector unions were forming a united front against Bill 28. On November 6, they announced a mass demonstration at the legislature for the following Saturday, followed by a general strike to make the province ungovernable until the law was repealed.
CUPE readied locals around the country to take direct action, including shutting down access to Toronto Pearson airport. CUPE’s Quebec wing discussed shutting down bridges. Unifor’s leaders put in calls to major auto assembly plants throughout Ontario. Were workers willing to shut them down? The answer was yes.
This level of labor solidarity, achieved within days, was immensely encouraging. Momentum was building.
At a November 7 press conference, the National President of CUPE introduced “an unprecedented gathering of labor leaders” behind a podium that read, “Respect Charter Rights. Repeal Bill 28.”
The union affiliations of the people standing behind him included: OSBCU, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation, the English Catholic Teachers Association, the Secondary Schools Teacher Federation, the Association of Franco-Ontarian Teachers, United Steelworkers, UFCW, UNIFOR, the Ontario Building Trades, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Sheet Metal Workers, Society of United Professionals, York Regional Labour Council, UNITE HERE, IATSE, NUPGE, PSAC, CUPW, OPSEU, ONA, COPEU, and SEIU-Healthcare. Also, all seven unions that had endorsed the Conservative premier for re-election publicly condemned him for violating workers’ rights.
This display of union solidarity backed by the threat of a general strike shifted the balance of power in favor of the labor movement. The tables had turned. Now the government’s survival was at stake. It had over-reached and wakened a giant. Two hours before the union press conference, Premier Doug Ford announced he would repeal Bill 28.
It was a spectacular surrender. On November 14, Bill 35 not only repealed Bill 28, but declared it “for all purposes never to have been in force.” The repeal law was back-dated to the day Bill 28 was passed, essentially erasing its existence.
The labor movement won this tremendous victory because it stood united.
The Premier promised to repeal the law on condition that OSBCU end their strike “as a show of good faith” and return to the bargaining table.
Having the upper hand, the unions could have agreed to stand down on condition that the government end all wage caps on public-sector contracts.
OSBCU could have agreed to end their strike on condition that the province accept education workers’ demands. At the very least, it could have insisted on resuming negotiations on the basis of its original demands. The union had every right to make such demands. The government had tried to kill the union, and it should pay something for that.
None of this happened. Ford’s announcement divided union officials. The demand to restore union bargaining rights had been met, and some feared that continuing the strike would jeopardize that win.
Behind the scenes, CUPE National pressed OSBCU to end the strike. At the press conference, Walton conceded,
As a gesture of good faith to this announcement [to repeal Bill 28], CUPE OSBCU will collapse our protest sites, starting tomorrow.
The CUPE National president stressed that ‘collapse’ did not mean surrender,
There are 55,000 education workers here in Ontario that still need a fair deal that helps them make ends meet, and we are going to stand with them until they get a deal that works for them and their families.
The CLC president added,
Now is the time to get back to that bargaining table. And let there be no mistake. Canada’s unions are ready to come back and rally once again and do whatever it takes to get this done.
Other union officials echoed this message, pledging “to stand in solidarity” with education workers and “to fight together for all workers.”
This did not happen.
With the pressure of a general strike removed and education workers back on the job, the government returned to its hardline position, offering barely more than what workers had already rejected.
Unable to negotiate a better deal, OSBCU issued a second 5-days’ strike notice. The night before the strike deadline, and under pressure from CUPE National, OSBCU accepted the government’s offer and sent it to the members for a vote.
Seventy-six percent of education workers voted on the tentative agreement; 73 percent of them voted yes, and 27 percent voted no. In total, 55 percent of members voted to accept the agreement.
The new four-year contract raises wages by $1 per hour per year, for an average annual increase of 3.59 percent. For the lowest paid workers, this amounts to an average 4.2 percent increase. Neither comes close to meeting the rising cost of living, which is over 7 percent.
At the end of this contract, education workers’ real wages will be lower than they were ten years ago. With no new money to hire more staff and improve services, public schools will continue to deteriorate. Better-off families will put their children in private schools, leaving working-class children to struggle in run-down, second-class schools.
The plus side is mighty slim: this is the first contract in a decade not imposed through legislation; a flat-rate increase narrows the gap between highest and lowest-paid workers; and the province agreed to pay striking workers for the two days they were out.
While union officials praised the unity and solidarity of their members, their members were not happy, posting hundreds of comments on Facebook.
This is a disgrace, it’s not even half of our original proposal that the union said they would not except less than.
Did you think they were going to give us a better deal? I doubt it. If we had voted no we’d have lost all support from public and be worse off than the beginning.
Whatever happened to “we won’t give up till we get what we deserve”? That’s all we heard, and stupid me believed it… This deal sucks and it’s the same song as before. Very disappointing and very disappointed with myself for believing again.
It feels like we are locked in a laundry machine on a wash cycle that never ends. – Teacher
It is difficult not to see this contract as a defeat. CUPE had pledged no concessions at its 2022 Convention, yet delivered another concession contract, that is, the union gave more ground than the employer did and failed to reverse past losses.
While admitting “I don’t like this deal … I think it falls short,” OSBCU president Laura Walton stated, “We have done our absolute best to represent workers needs and interests.” Two days later, CUPE National confirmed, “we are confident the bargaining committee secured all that could be secured.” In other words, they did the best they could within the system of contract bargaining. How can we understand this?
Union officials are caught in a class conflict. They are accountable to the workers who pay their salaries, and they must have the employer’s approval to get a contract. Workers and bosses have opposite needs, so union officials can never please them both.
This is a terrible position to be in for union officials like Walton who are sincerely committed to their members’ welfare. If I were in her shoes, my heart would be breaking.
Some say union officials care more about protecting their six-figure incomes than they care about getting a good deal for members. Whether or not that is true, it is not the root cause of the problem.
If the problem is a lack of caring or commitment by union officials, then the solution is to replace them with more caring and committed people. That has been tried repeatedly over the years and has proven not to work.
The fundamental problem is that unions are locked into a system that sets them up to fail.
It’s the System
Bosses profit from workers’ labor. Private property laws make it impossible for the majority to produce what they need for themselves and each other, forcing them to work for wages instead. The wage system enriches employers while keeping workers too poor to walk away.
Union officials try to negotiate the best terms of employment for workers. However, they can never get a fair deal from employers, who profit by holding workers down. The wage system restricts unions to negotiating the conditions under which workers make bosses rich, not the wage system that forces them to do so.
The power of union officials lies in their ability to negotiate contracts. That is why they were willing to mount a general strike to restore their bargaining rights, but not to force the government to meet education workers’ demands.
By stripping union officials of their bargaining rights, Bill 28 gave them nothing to lose. Once their bargaining rights were restored, they had everything to lose.
Contract bargaining is a system of compromise. A strike is the opposite of compromise; it is a weapon of class war. Effective strikes hurt the employer economically more than it would hurt them to meet workers’ demands.
To secure the employer’s cooperation, union officials must hold workers back from striking in ways that hurt the employer’s business. That means agreeing to cooling-off periods, mounting one-day or rotating strikes, interrupting strike actions to vote on tentative agreements, ending strikes before agreements are signed, and disciplining activists who try to push the struggle forward.
Ineffective strike actions minimize damage to the employer and wear workers down until they accept what is offered.
Contract bargaining divides workers into bargaining units that negotiate separate contracts. The Ontario public school system has four teachers’ unions and two education workers’ unions that negotiate separate contracts with the same employer. When education workers struck, it was illegal for other union members under contract to strike alongside them, even those working in the same building.
As the education workers’ strike showed, playing by the bosses’ rules is a sure way to lose.
This pattern of ineffective strikes and concession contracts has repeated in Ontario for more than 40 years. Despite the failure of contract bargaining to meet workers’ needs, union officials cannot abandon it. Negotiating contracts is their reason for being. Like someone trapped in a bad marriage, they see no way out.
Committed to a system of compromise, union officials must treat their relationship with the employer like a marriage – a challenging one for sure – but one they must sustain to get the best outcome within the contract-bargaining framework.
Bill 28 served notice of divorce; that the employer was ending its partnership with the union, that it no longer needed the union to help it manage the workforce. To prove otherwise, union officials were willing to break the law and mobilize the entire labor movement.
In marriage, it benefits both partners not to press their advantage, but to show good faith by finding common ground, offering forgiveness, and giving second chances.
Once Bill 28 was rescinded and the bargaining relationship restored, union officials agreed not to break the law, as a sign of good faith in the relationship. That meant not pressing their advantage to force the province to meet workers’ demands. It meant not launching a general strike or even solidarity strikes.
Why did OSBCU not consult the members before ending their strike? Why were members not asked if they wanted to resume striking after negotiations stalled a second time? The members were willing to fight. They had voted overwhelmingly to strike, the union was in a legal strike position, and they had majority public support.
When committed union officials like Laura Walton raise workers’ expectations of what they can achieve, they are disciplined by union bureaucrats higher up the chain of command.
Top union officials could not take the risk that education workers would choose to strike again. Using the strike weapon would threaten the unions’ newly restored relationship with the employer. Plus, an education workers’ strike was unlikely to win without solidarity strikes from the four teachers’ unions whose members had worked (under protest) through the strike. As one teacher posted on Facebook,
Will we stand and fight for the services that CUPE couldn’t push for? Our students still need it, and we didn’t stand with CUPE at all. We were just going to keep on teaching, online. We should have been willing to go out on a wildcat strike in support of what they were fighting for. We left CUPE hanging.
If you view the relationship of unions and employers as a marriage, then you would defend the final contract as the best that could be achieved under the circumstances. And you would be right. It was the best the union could achieve without jeopardizing its partnership with the employer.
Union officials and employers have a common interest in maintaining labor peace. Union members do not. Workers are in a daily battle with employers over whose needs matter more: their need for decent work or the employer’s need to cut costs and raise profits. This is a class-war relationship, with no common interest. There can be no partnership here. What one side wins, the other must lose. Higher wages mean lower profits.
If you view the relationship of unions and employers as a class war, then you would condemn the final contract as a defeat. And you would be right, because so much more was possible.
For more than 40 years, employers have been warring against the working class, cutting wages and benefits, downsizing, automating, contracting out, union busting, and making people work harder and longer for less. Calling this a class war is no exaggeration, given the massive amount of suffering, injury, and death caused by the relentless drive for profit.
Bill 28 provoked union officials to unite and fight back. Had they mobilized their members to fight as a class, they could win higher wages, better working conditions, and quality public services. That is how workers won these benefits in the past.
Power concedes nothing without a demand that is backed by the power to deliver something worse.
Class war shatters the pretense of partnership between bosses and unions. Effective strikes disrupt the flow of profit and create a social crisis that can be solved only by meeting workers’ demands.
Labor law prevents such crises by limiting workers’ struggles to contract fights. The contract-bargaining system compels union officials to hold back the class army, while small groups of workers are slaughtered on the front lines.
Blocked from mobilizing working-class power, public-sector unions mobilize public opinion instead. They urge the public to pressure government officials to do the right thing, and they partner with community groups to spread this message.
Public-pressure campaigns are most effective when linked with specific class battles. Ontario education workers and their supporters leafleted public schools and organized demonstrations around the slogan, “Our working conditions are your child’s learning conditions.”
The Paint the Province Purple campaign mobilized hundreds of people to poster and leaflet neighborhoods and public schools, tie purple ribbons on doorknobs, posts, and trees, and bombard elected officials with thousands of emails and phone messages supporting workers’ demands. This campaign found a receptive audience.
A survey during the strike found that 62 per cent of people in Ontario and 68 percent of parents of school-aged children blamed the government and not the union for school closures. This is impressive in light of the government’s anti-union slander campaign. Sadly, it did not produce a win.
Politicians typically ignore public opinion unless it is backed by workplace action and the threat of economic loss. Consider the battle for paid sick leave.
Paid sick leave saves lives. It prevents the spread of disease and eases pressure on medical systems. A 2021 survey reported that 83 percent of Ontario residents think “governments should make all employers provide paid sick days for all employees.”
Ignoring public health and public opinion, the Ontario government has voted 28 times to reject paid-sick-leave legislation. Why are they opposed to a life-saving measure that the overwhelming majority want?
When human need conflicts with corporate greed, governments always side with the business class.
Meeting people’s needs costs money. When the cost of labor rises due to higher wages or more benefits, profits fall. One could argue that paid sick leave saves money, which it does, but not for employers. If it did, they would adopt it in a heartbeat… as long as it did not encourage workers to demand more.
When public pressure campaigns fail to deliver results, the problem is typically identified as not enough people being mobilized, and the solution is to urge more people to campaign more vigorously.
We cannot win with a losing strategy, not matter how vigorously we apply it.
Last May, the Ontario Federation of Labour mounted a province-wide public campaign to prevent the Conservatives from being re-elected. It failed miserably. Voter turnout was just 45 per cent, a record low for Ontario elections, and the Conservatives were re-elected.
I heard two explanations for this dismal outcome. One was that people don’t care enough about the issues. Another was that people think their vote doesn’t matter.
Another explanation is that people did vote: they voted with their feet. They stayed away from the polls because no political party offered a real alternative. They distrust politicians. They feel powerless to improve things at work or in society. They see their lives getting harder, no matter who is elected.
Unions have failed to deliver real improvements for workers. Many workers have given up in discouragement. Some gravitate to anti-worker “freedom” movements that exploit their hunger for liberation.
Public opinion campaigns do not build workers’ power or offer liberation, only endless rounds of lobbying politicians in the hope of exerting more influence than corporate lobbyists hauling bags of money. Corporations fund politicians’ campaigns, and more than 90 percent of the time, the better-funded candidate wins.
Public-pressure campaigns are based on two mistaken beliefs: that politicians respond to public pressure more than they respond to their corporate backers; and that governments can be convinced to support workers over bosses. The evidence shows otherwise.
Bosses and workers have opposite needs, so there can be no peace between them. To prevent disruptive worker rebellions, bosses need a State to keep workers down. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote,
The State arises where, when, and to the extent that class antagonism cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the State proves that these class antagonisms are irreconcilable.
The modern State is a vast web of institutions that enforce capitalist rule. However most people, including union officials, do not see the State as an instrument of class rule. They see it as a neutral party that stands apart from the war between employers and workers, and can therefore be a potential ally. To hold the loyalty of top union officials, governments offer pro-union, pro-worker sound bites.
Last year, US President Joe Biden pledged, “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” The President of the largest union federation in United States, the AFL-CIO, praised the Biden administration as “the most pro-union administration in history.”
The cozy partnership between government and top union officials is cemented at Labor Day functions and union conventions where governing politicians are given starring roles.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford also boasted that he and his Conservative party are pro-labor. A few months before scrapping union rights with Bill 28, Ford announced plans to march in Labor Day parades across the province.
Actions Speak Louder
The modern state serves as a committee for managing the common affairs of the capitalist class. – Karl Marx (1848)
It is comforting to believe the State cares about workers, unions, or even people in general. If we look at its actions, we have to conclude that the State functions as the executive arm of the business class.
Corporate executives bitterly complain about government interfering in their affairs, yet they depend on government to create opportunities for profit, secure lucrative deals, and rescue them from financial crises and workers’ demands.
We do not live in a democracy. We live in a capitalist dictatorship, under the heel of corporations who profit off our blood, sweat, and tears. If we look past the words and focus on what governments actually do, we can see they exist to serve the business class, and last only as long as they serve the business class.
State loyalty to the business class was cruelly revealed when both houses of the US government (including its progressive wing) joined with the US business class and billionaire railway owners to impose an inhumane contract on railway workers, the same contract they had repeatedly rejected.
A disruptive rail strike could have been avoided by imposing a contract that met workers’ demands. This did not happen because the State serves to restrict workers’ demands, not encourage them.
States strive for maximum control over unions. They claim the right to certify a union as the official workers’ representative. They set the terms required for union certification, can change those terms at will, and can demand re-certification votes. They can decertify unions and block them from collecting members’ dues.
States can prohibit strikes, pass back-to-work legislation, outlaw mass pickets, forbid workplace occupations, ban secondary picketing of companies doing business with a company under strike, and criminalize solidarity or sympathy strikes, where workers who are still under contract strike in support of other workers on strike.
States make it illegal to launch ‘wildcat’ strikes that force employers to meet workers’ demands. When such strikes do break out, States demand that union officials rein in their members, threatening huge fines, jail time, and union decertification if they do not. Such measures make union survival dependent on not striking effectively.
The Electoral Strategy
When a marriage goes sour, people look for more compatible partners. When a government proves impossible to work with, union officials yearn for a different, more pro-union government.
With one brief exception, Ontario has been governed by political parties of the business class for over a hundred years. Union officials believe it would be easier to deliver good contracts under a labor or social democratic government. In Canada, they look to the New Democratic Party (NDP). Would workers get a better deal under the NDP?
The NDP has governed the province of British Columbia (BC) since 2017, one year longer than the Conservatives have governed Ontario. This is a natural experiment: two parties that claim to be fundamentally different are in power at the same time under similar conditions. In practice, they are no different.
In 2019, the NDP in BC passed the Sustainable Services Negotiating Mandate, capping public-sector wages at two percent per year over three years. When that mandate expired in 2022, they passed the Shared Recovery Mandate, that continues to hold public-sector wages well below inflation. These laws parallel Ontario’s Bill 124, that caps public-sector workers’ wages at one percent per year over three years. Like the Conservatives in Ontario, the NDP in BC also steals Indigenous land, criminalizes homelessness, and supports fossil-fuel extraction.
The NDP claims that it would govern the State for the greater good. This is not possible, because the State is structured to serve the business class, no matter who is elected. This was revealed in the lead-up to the Days of Action, the largest worker rebellion in Ontario history.
Days of Action
In 1990, the Canadian economy had suffered six months of negative economic growth and was heading into recession. The standard remedy for recessions is to boost profits by de-funding social programs and cutting workers’ wages. When the parties of big business try to do this, they provoke worker rebellions. So the business class turn to Labor or Social Democratic parties to manage the working-class. The role of these parties in rescuing capitalism from crisis is well documented.
In October 1990, the NDP won its first Ontario election. Three years later, it passed the Social Contract Act to reduce the government deficit, not by raising corporate taxes, but by cutting social programs and public-sector wages. Support for the NDP dropped dramatically, enabling the Conservative Party to win the 1995 election and finish the job.
The Conservatives imposed a series of austerity policies they called the Common Sense Revolution. Massive tax cuts were offset by massive cuts to social programs. Stripped-to-the-bone programs were restructured to deliver standardized services by the fewest people at the lowest cost. Corporations were invited to take over public institutions and run them as profit-making businesses.
Many union officials had served as cabinet ministers and advisors in the former NDP government. They had not challenged the NDP assault, so they were slow to respond to the Conservative assault.
Anti-poverty groups, disability activists, social-justice organizations, and students were first to publicly protest the deadly impact of the cuts. The unions followed.
Between 1995 and 1998, Ontario unions challenged the Conservative agenda with 11 Days of Action, a series of rolling, one-day general strikes in major cities.
The popular chant, “City by city is way too slow! Let’s shut down Ontario!” reflected the widespread desire for a province-wide shutdown. It could have happened.
In 1996, a one-day general strike in Hamilton was followed by a province-wide strike of 65,000 public-service workers. A quarter of a million people struck Toronto the same year. The following year, Ontario teachers launched an illegal, two-week strike, the largest teachers’ strike in Canada’s history.
Why did the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL) not incorporate these strikes into the Days of Action or use the Days of Action to broaden them?
Union officials were divided over the way forward. Some wanted to direct the movement to campaign for the NDP. Others opposed this, given the NDP’s recent betrayal. Some opposed the Days of Action altogether. Others feared to escalate strike action. These disagreements collapsed the Days of Action, leaving community groups to battle alone. In 1999, the Conservatives were re-elected.
The end of the Days of Action marked the political triumph of neoliberal restructuring and permanent austerity, and the crafting of a new political and economic common sense that has endured in Ontario to this day.
Some say union officials are the enemy because they keep workers trapped in the contract-bargaining system. This is mistaken.
Union officials are not the enemy. The business class and their State are the ones holding workers and unions hostage to a profit-taking system. They are the ones privatizing our public services and lowering people’s expectations of what they deserve.
The labor movement includes everyone who supports workers’ rights, whether they are workers or not. Union officials are professionals who are committed to workers’ rights and also conflicted, because their salaries depend on them not challenging the wage-based, contract-bargaining system.
Everyone has their limitations. The labor movement is strongest when we work with as many people as possible for as long as possible, while preparing to press forward when others no longer can.
One thing is certain: Employers will keep attacking, workers will keep fighting back, and governments will keep passing laws to make those fights ineffective.
The British Parliament recently introduced a Bill that mandates a minimal level of service during a strike. A strike will not be allowed to disrupt the economy, and workers will be required to scab on their own strikes. The Canadian province of New Brunswick has introduced a Bill that allows it to restrict picketing and use scab labor during a public-sector strike.
The problems of education workers have not gone away, and there will be more battles. Discouragement from the contract defeat can be overcome if workers understand why it happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again.
In the months leading up to the strike, a network of OSBCU activists worked tirelessly to pull the members together. Their person-to-person organizing bore fruit; thousands of low-paid workers inspired each other to strike for their rights, despite $4,000 a-day fines over their heads. That is class solidarity. That is the real victory!
Working people rely on public services. They understand that quality services depend on quality working conditions. During the Ontario education workers’ strike, half the people surveyed “would support more unions walking off the job to protest with education workers.” Public-sector workers are perfectly placed to organize this discontent and expand narrow contract disputes into larger class battles against austerity.
We do not need to wait for a different government.
Mass struggles can win major gains, no matter which political party is in power. This was proved by the 2018 teachers’ rebellions across West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
The conditions in our state that made the election of Donald Trump possible are the exact same conditions that made our strike possible. – West Virginia Teacher
Red State Revolt provides an inside look at a wave of (illegal) educators’ strikes that achieved more over a few weeks of struggle than had been won over decades of election campaigns.
Union activists built effective strikes by organizing educators regardless of job description, qualifications, union affiliation, or location. Some reached out to include all public-sector workers. They built networks of workplace committees that shared information and coordinated strike actions. They worked inside their unions, alongside union officials. When officials lost heart, they carried the struggle forward until they won their demands, in writing.
We love our unions; we couldn’t have accomplished what we did without them. But we did have to overstep them along the way at certain times. – West Virginia Teacher
How to Win the Class War
A volcano of class rage is building at the base of society. Workers are ready to fight and are voting in overwhelming numbers to strike.
Reviving effective strikes is essential to winning the class war. Workers must aim to stop the flow of profit, and be bold enough not to back down until they win.
It doesn’t matter if an action is illegal if you have enough people doing it. – West Virginia teacher
Effective strikes protect workers from retaliation by making employers too frightened to provoke more strike action.
Unions that mount effective strikes, winning strikes, attract workers who want the same power to make their own lives better. Winning strikes is the only way to rebuild union density, stop privatization, and raise workers’ living standards.
Building worker power, person-to-person, is a challenging road with many setbacks. However, it is the only road to the breakthrough we desperately need. A few solid wins could open a floodgate, releasing decades of pent-up demand for a better life and a better world.
Workers are unstoppable when they fight as a class. Joining hands around the world, they can end the wage system and run society themselves, directly and democratically, for the common good.
Workers create all wealth, and a system that allows the few to obtain billions in riches while the producers of wealth live in misery is an illegitimate system. Once we accept that essential reality and act as a class, victory will be ours.
Excellent analysis, thank you.
Many thanks to Dr. Rosenthal for this superlatively written piece. As a journalistic account of the history of these events, this article is of very high quality. I was not at all familiar with these important events as they happened. But despite the superlative quality of her writing and reporting, I am confused by, and disagree with some of the most crucial conclusions she draws from her own account.
I’m American, rather than Canadian, but I have some considerable experience working with union dissidents against their own concessionary union leadership. This article seems to explain that the obstacles to building worker solidarity, and thus to building a credible ‘labor movement’, are fundamentally the same in Canada as in the US. Despite the high quality of her recounting of this highly spirited action by one group of public sector workers, Dr. Rosenthal somehow dismisses the importance of the role played by union ‘Fat Cats’ in undermining the interests of the workers they were supposed to represent.
Dr. Rosenthal writes:
“Some say union officials care more about protecting their six-figure incomes than they care about getting a good deal for members. Whether or not that is true, it is not the root cause of the problem.”
This simply doesn’t make sense to me, and certainly does not agree with my own experience with organized labor. Dr. Rosenthal seems to contradict her own basic thesis. After making this sweeping statement, she then goes on to argue that the undermining of the interests of workers by their own union officials was a primary reason, in fact THE primary reason, for the failure of a well-organized and highly spirited action by front-line activists and workers.
The “root cause of the problem” has multiple facets of complexity, but none are more important than the fact that highly paid “union officials”, (as Dr. Rosenthal calls them), simply do NOT share common interests with the workers they represent. In fact, due to the basic vagaries of our human nature itself, (such as greed), their high salaries cause ‘union bosses’ to share the interests of the ‘corporate bosses’ much more closely than those of the workers they are elected to represent.
For example, Mary Kay Henry, the current president of SEIU, earned $290,000 American dollars of total compensation in 2019. (I’m relatively sure she’s given herself a raise since then). That is about $145/hour, (figuring a 2000 hour work year). Besides this opulent (top 5%) compensation directly paid out to them, union Fat Cats, (as they are often called by labor dissidents in the US), also enjoy generous expense accounts on the union dime. They attend all-expenses-paid ‘conferences’ in exotic vacation locales, often with spouses in tow. They dine on $50 lunches in fine fancy restaurants, (often with corporate executives), which the union pays for, (over and above their top 5% salaries), not at the local diner where meat loaf and potatoes, or a hamburger, are $6.95. $50 is only a bit less than 1/3 of Ms. Henry’s upper class (top 5%) hourly earnings. $6.95 is over 1/2 an hour’s labor for a typical rank-and-file SEIU worker. SEIU’s average salary for union officials/bureaucrats is $90,000, in a union representing workers struggling to make a minimal living wage. The SEIU Fat Cats will then boast insufferably about SEIU winning a 60 cent per hour raise in wages for janitors or maids making less than $12/hour.
Mary Kay Henry, and her Fat Cat union minions earning an average of $90k, simply do NOT share the same interests of janitors and maids making $12/hour.
In this article, after making the sweeping statement quoted above, Dr. Rosenthal then goes on to explain that the militancy of rank and file union members in the Canadian education workers’ job action was completely undermined when the union Fat Cats caved in. Sure, the Fat Cats themselves were militant, and capable of wide intra-union ‘solidarity’, when THEIR personal interests were threatened by Bill 28, but once their interests were re-secured by the repeal of that law, the Fat Cats ‘caved’, undermining untold hours of hard work by front line union activists and rank and file workers.
How does Dr. Rosenthal then deduce from her own account of these events that the huge disparity of interests between highly paid union officials and front line workers was not the ‘root cause’ of the overall failure of this courageous job action?
The foibles of our basic human nature are the “root cause of the problem”. The solution that Dr. Rosenthal suggests is doing away with the wage system, and workers running their own enterprises ‘democratically’, which she calls Socialism.
How’s ‘democracy’ working now to run their own unions? How does Dr. Rosenthal think it can do better running their own companies, or their own countries?
History itself has proven that Socialism itself does not solve the predicament of working people. As Samuel Clemens, (American author Mark Twain), is attributed with saying, “You throw out one nest of rascals, and then another nest of rascals just takes their place”.
Human nature itself is our “root cause of our problem”. Human ‘culture’, rooted in human spiritual morality, is the only thing that addresses this “root cause”. Democracy and/or Socialism alone do nothing to solve our ‘root’ problem.
We, the Common People, are not NEARLY yet ready to wage a political struggle and/or “class war”. Before we can build a labor movement or political movement that has a credible chance to improve our lives, we must build a spiritual movement to inculcate moral values in our fallible human hearts, to address the foibles of our human nature itself, which are clearly the “root cause of our problem”.
I agree that top union bureaucrats have nothing in common with low-paid workers.
If, as you say, the root problem is ‘human nature,’ then nothing can be done.
Trying to change human behavior without changing the system that shapes our behavior is a losing strategy. The hierarchy that exists within unions parallels the hierarchy that exists in society. We cannot change the one without changing the other.
Given the many crises we face today, a social revolution to liberate humanity from capitalist rule is far more likely to succeed than a spiritual revolution to change human nature.
The argument that oppressed people are not ready to rule themselves is the self-satisfied stance of the oppressor class. They used it against enslaved Africans in the American South and Black South Africans under apartheid. It continues to be used against the working class and Indigenous people everywhere. Workers already run the world, but not for themselves. They couldn’t possibly do a worse job of managing society than a capitalist class that is driving humanity over the cliff of extinction.
I love reading your articles before work because it puts me in a better mindset for the day. I feel more empowered when I read your work and less empowered when I read stuff from news media so I try to have a balance. Thanks!
Thanks so much for this excellent article! It is an important case study in the role of governments, parties, labor officials and the rank and file. I think Susan’s stress on the conflict of interest between union officials and the rank and file in her response is an important clarification. This conflict is why socialists have adopted the rank and file strategy best explained by Kim Moody in his various articles and books. Because union officials have their own set of interests , militant workers need to form their own organizations within the unions to push the unions to be as militant and democratic as possible. This is an ongoing battle as long as capitalism exists. It won’t be solved until socialist revolution, when workers take full economic and political power , eliminate exploitation and use the wealth of society for all the people instead of the top 1%. https://socialistworker.org/2018/12/13/socialists-and-the-rank-and-file-strategy