When most OSSTF/FEESO members think about their union, they’re probably thinking about the present or the future. They might think about the protections they have under their current collective agreement, or about their benefits coverage. Maybe they’re considering what they’re hoping for from the next round of bargaining. If they’re politically engaged, they might be wondering what a new government has in store for public education in the province, and how the Federation will respond. But they’re not very likely to be pondering their Federation’s past.
In 2019, OSSTF/FEESO will be observing its 100th anniversary. There will be a range of activities and festivities, all celebrating—as our centennial tagline says—a hundred years as a leader in education. But the centennial is more than a reason to celebrate what the Federation has become. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on how OSSTF/FEESO came to be the union that it is now.
There are dozens of clichés about the value of history, including one that tells us that if we don’t understand the past, we can’t fully understand the present. There is a lot of truth to that notion; a meaningful understanding of almost any situation requires that we understand how that situation came to be. Similarly, an understanding of the history of OSSTF/FEESO provides an important sense of context that allows us to properly understand and appreciate the Federation we have today.
That’s why OSSTF/FEESO’s history is something we’ll be focusing on over the next year as we commemorate our 100th anniversary. That focus begins in this issue of Education Forum, with a compelling feature article by the Federation’s former Communications Director, Jack Hutton, about Lt. Col. William Michell, a decorated hero of World War I and the first president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. William Michell was a man who recognized injustice and unfairness when he saw it, and who also understood the power of solidarity and collective action when it came to undoing injustice and insisting on fairness. Jack Hutton tells us about Michell and about Walter Clarke, a Latin teacher who was instrumental in organizing OSSTF’s clandestine founding meeting—a meeting undertaken in the months following the Winnipeg General Strike, in a political climate where any hint of workers organizing in support of their collective rights was likely to draw accusations of Bolshevism. He tells us also about Jesse Muir, the teacher from Ottawa who, at the Federation’s general meeting the following year, introduced a successful motion embedding the principle of equal pay for equal work into the policies of OSSTF.
Of course, the story of Michell and Clarke and OSSTF’s first meeting is just one of dozens of stories of those who took risks great and small—mostly through collective actions but sometimes through bold organizational initiatives—to move the Federation forward, to push back against injustice and unfairness of all varieties, and to ultimately shape the strong, principled, inclusive union that we have in 2018.
We’ll be featuring more of those stories in Education Forum over the next several issues as we move closer to the anniversary of that founding meeting on a snowy December night in 1919. Many of the stories will be in form of excerpts from a commemorative book that will be published in the spring of 2019. Written by a team of active and retired OSSTF/FEESO members and staff, the book will present the history of the Federation not so much as a chronological series of events, but rather as an account of the union’s struggles and accomplishments within specific areas of activity, such as collective bargaining, political action, and social justice struggles, to name a few.
A series of short video vignettes about the Federation’s history are also in production, and they, too, will be released in the spring of 2019.
As we commemorate our 100th anniversary, we will, of course, celebrate everything OSSTF/FEESO has accomplished over the decades. But let’s also take the time to learn about and contemplate the enormous struggles and the hard work that led to those accomplishments, and remember that it falls to us to continue that work if we want to keep and improve upon all those gains that were 100 years in the making.