Countless times over the years, OSSTF/FEESO members have stood together in solidarity to defend their rights and their working conditions, and to protect the integrity and the quality of the publicly-funded education system in Ontario. But while they are frequently united by common goals and mutual struggles, there is nothing monolithic or homogenous about OSSTF/FEESO’s 60,000 or so members. Within that membership there dwells a wealth of diversity that manifests in numberless ways, one of which is with regard to political orientation.
In my role as Editor of both Education Forum and Update, I now and again receive feedback from members who object to specific political opinions or statements that appear in those publications, or who take issue with the political strategies adopted by the Federation. As the June provincial election loomed closer and OSSTF/FEESO’s election strategy began to unfold, those objections—though still infrequent—began to pop up a little more often. There’s nothing surprising about this. With tens of thousands of members, it would be naïve to expect that every member would be in agreement with every statement or Federation strategy, and it’s reasonable to expect that some members who disagree would want to express that disagreement.
But while there is nothing surprising or unwelcome about members expressing a range of political opinions, I do find it disconcerting to receive the occasional communication suggesting that the Federation has no business adopting a political strategy at all, and should just steer clear of politics altogether. I was recently talking about this to a colleague, and he offered what I think is an astute analogy. He said, “A union that doesn’t pay attention to politics is like a farmer who doesn’t pay attention to the weather.”
It’s an analogy that works for all unions that operate within the regulatory framework of provincial labour legislation, but it’s particularly true for public sector unions like OSSTF/FEESO. When weather turns hostile, the farmer’s crops and the farmer’s livelihood are likely to suffer. Likewise, when the political environment turns hostile—as it did, for example, under the Mike Harris government in the mid-1990s—everything from members’ working conditions to compensation to the integrity of the public education system itself can be at serious risk. This is why OSSTF/FEESO always pays very close attention to the political environment.
Unlike the farmer who is powerless to affect the weather, however, OSSTF/FEESO has both the opportunity and every right to work within the democratic process to encourage political results that are desirable for Federation members. The union has a long history of strategic political action. Sometimes that takes the form of large, high-profile undertakings like our participation in the historic political protest over Bill 160 in 1997, which to this day remains the largest job action ever undertaken by education workers in North America. And sometimes it takes the form of less visible initiatives like last year’s Lobby Day at Queen’s Park, where 120 OSSTF/FEESO members from all over the province met with MPPs from all parties, including cabinet ministers and opposition leaders, to talk about violence in our workplaces. That particular effort resulted in major commitments from both the Minister of Education and the Minister of Labour to take exactly the kind of action our members were lobbying for.
And, of course, at least once every four years a provincial election becomes the focus of the Federation’s political activities. OSSTF/FEESO is not, and has never been, aligned or affiliated with any political party, and our approach to electoral politics is never about advancing the interests of one party over another. Instead, it is about advancing the interests of our members and protecting the integrity of public education in Ontario. Decisions about which parties or candidates to support, or not support, are predicated entirely on that objective. It’s important for individual OSSTF/FEESO members to understand this when they find that their personal political loyalties are at odds with the Federation’s election strategies.
To take a position that the Federation should not involve itself with electoral politics at all is frankly tantamount to suggesting that OSSTF/FEESO should abdicate its responsibility to protect the rights and the working conditions of its members. Almost a century of experience has shown us, over and over again, that the disposition of the government at Queen’s Park can, and usually does, have a dramatic impact on the lives of OSSTF/FEESO members.
To whatever extent political action can help to create a more positive environment in which to advocate for the interests of education workers, it will always be the Federation’s duty to engage in the political process.