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Headshot of me with long hair, pink lip stick, light makeup Kara Babcock

We cannot afford not to strike

Accepting arbitration now is not the way forward, not when OSSTF should be standing up with the labour movement across North America.

Hot labour summer might be over, yet we are rolling right in to pumpkin spice labour autumn. The Hollywood strikes continue; the UAW strikes are on fire; Amazon workers are on strike; Starbucks workers are unionizing; here in Canada, strikes have put pressure on companies and governments across the country from ILWU to PSAC. Here in Ontario, TVO workers continue to strike, and three of the four major education unions in the province are holding or poised to hold strike votes.

Not mine, though. Not OSSTF. We are holding a member-wide vote on whether to support a bargaining pathway that surrenders our right to strike (for this round of bargaining) and automatically puts us into binding arbitration if we don’t have a deal by October 27.

And the more I ponder it, the more it makes me mad.

Oh, I listened to my provincial executive’s reasoning. I went to the local meeting. President Littlewood and the other representatives spoke well, did their best to sell my district on the plan. I can see the enticements: a guaranteed remedy to Bill 124; no need to worry about picketing through a long, cold winter; no need to worry about not being paid during a protracted strike; no back-to-work legislation that results in nothing accomplished except raising the ire of parents inconvenienced by their children’s schools being closed. For the nonteacher education workers in the union especially, I can understand how they might feel that this pathway offers more than the last rounds of bargaining have won them.

But whose responsibility is that? Is it entirely the government’s?

OSSTF provincial executive really wanted us to hear all about the upsides of voluntary binding arbitration and none of the downsides. They really wanted to emphasize how this was our plan, a union plan, that they backed the government up against a Greenbelt-scandal wall and basically forced them to agree to drop any nasty conditions the government initially wanted. There’s truth in much of that.

Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about how much the government gains from breaking our solidarity with other unions. And we are breaking with solidarity. Littlewood doesn’t like that framing of it, insists that this pathway is simply the best way forward, in her and the executive’s opinion, to get the best deal for members. That she stands in solidarity with other unions—just in a kind of theoretical way. In reality, if we move forward with this pathway, the government can use us as an example of the “good” union that goes to arbitration instead of striking. And as our fellow education workers in other unions go on strike, we will keep working, satisfied that if they win greater gains as a result of their labour action, we get to activate a “wage reopener” clause.

As I spoke with fellow members at the local meeting, I sensed the mood. We are all tired. Education workers and adult day school teachers like myself make dramatically less than other teacher members of the bargaining units (and education workers make far less than I do, to be clear). Facing rising inflation and a government that is actively hostile to public education and collective bargaining, the hypothetical compensation gains and the guaranteed Bill 124 remedy provided by this pathway beckon to us. I don’t blame anyone for voting yes to this proposal.

I blame my union for not doing enough. For not mobilizing us to a position of power. For selling out the hard-fought victories of fifty years—which is when OSSTF finally won the right to strike—because going to arbitration is, let’s face it, easier than striking.

Members told me they can’t afford to strike. But that is literally why we have a strike fund. Employers want us to think we can’t afford to strike so we accept whatever working conditions they give us. If you can afford to strike, you don’t need to strike. The whole point of collective action is that we work together to support each other. Yet OSSTF has done little (at least from my perspective as a nine-year member, maybe it’s different for other districts or for newer members, but I doubt it) to inculcate a spirit of collective action in us. Somewhere in the last few decades of Liberal and Conservative governments both kicking us over and over with unconstitutional legislation and antiteacher rhetoric, we forgot that labour actions are not individual actions. We forgot that we are lifting each other up.

There was a brief glimmer last November when I thought that might have changed. When the OSBCU branch of CUPE went on strike in November 2022 despite hastily passed government legislation forbidding it, shockwaves reverberated across the Canadian labour movement. The air felt electric. Finally, someone was standing up to Doug Ford and other opponents of labour in a big way. He blustered. He intimated there could be charges, that the ringleaders of the movement could face jail for what was, let us remember, technically an illegal stirke. He tried to make CUPE the villain for closing schools. But he didn’t, couldn’t, because CUPE stayed strong, and other unions—yes, including OSSTF and President Littlewood—stood strong behind them. I walked my local picket line outside MPP Kevin Holland’s office one chilly day after school.

It’s a lot easier to support someone else doing something hard than to do it yourself, I guess.

Members told me they didn’t see the point to striking. The government isn’t sympathetic to workers; they will just legislate us back to work. Leaving aside the absurdity of this first statement (if the government were sympathetic to us, we shouldn’t need to strike), I need to unpack the apathy within the second statement. Again, it’s an apathy borne from the inaction and disappointing messaging of the OSSTF provincial executive rather than my fellow members.

Look, I am not an expert in labour law or history (though let’s note that many such experts think this proposed pathway is a bad idea). I can’t speak to the complexities around back-to-work legislation, strikes, labour law, etc. Again, however, let’s remember that CUPE’s strike last year was against the law and they did it anyway.

If the situation is dire enough, if we truly think that this government is not giving us what we deserve as workers or funding public education to the level that our children deserve, then we must strike, and we must stand up, and we must fight for it. No, we cannot do it alone—which is why we should be organizing with other unions, not seeking a pathway that is ours and ours alone. Yes, it could be hard. But would it be worse than standing by and continuing to do next to nothing while Ford and Lecce dismantle our schools brick by legislative brick?

When I came out of my local meeting last week feeling defeated and dejected by the lack of a fighting spirit in that room, I wondered if I was just being an idealist. Maybe my privilege, as someone making $64,000 per year, makes me feel comfortable blowing my mouth off like this. Maybe I’m just too radical. Maybe the members I talked to were right, and there is no point in fighting this government, and we should just go for arbitration and hope that the arbitrator somehow sees things our way.

I have had a week to mull it over. To remind myself that being radical is what we need in a time of unprecedented environmental and social injustice. To remind myself that advocating for a strong worker movement isn’t privileged. Striking and disrupting labour are how less privileged workers fight for our rights in this economy. We have forgotten that, though, because OSSTF provincial executive has done precious little in this last year of bargaining to help us remember.

So I voted no. I would urge any of my fellow members who have yet to cast their vote to do the same. Voluntary arbitration will get us a deal—that much is certain. I don’t agree with the provincial executive that it will get us the best deal, or even necessarily a good deal, especially when it comes to working conditions. More importantly, in my opinion, I resent that my union has even entertained this pathway now, at a time of unprecedented unrest—and gains—in the labour movement across Canada and the United States. We have an opportunity right now like we have not had in years.

We sat down at the bargaining table for an entire year, and the government refused to bargain with us in good faith. It’s time we stand up.

Cover image by Marcus Spiske from Pexels.