OSSTF/FEESO was brought into being in 1919 by leaders and activists who were already setting a high standard for members to emulate over the ensuing century. Our first president, William Michell, was not only a respected teacher and principal, but also a celebrated hero of the First World War. When he returned from defending his country on the battlefields of Europe, he turned his attention to defending the rights of his fellow educators and the integrity of publicly-funded education. He understood that the kind of country he was willing to go to battle for, and possibly to die for, was also the kind of country that can only live up to its potential when education is a public priority.
Like William Michell, OSSTF/FEESO members have always understood the crucial role education plays in a prosperous and just society. Over the years they have been called upon many times to stand together and defend not just each other’s interests, but the interests of their students and the integrity of the public education system itself whenever governments have taken steps to undermine it.
Many of those battles have been fought at the local level, but some have involved province-wide actions that tapped the resolve and the solidarity of the entire membership. When our right to strike was threatened in 1973, and again when our pensions were under threat in 1989, thousands of educators rallied in demonstrations of solidarity so impressive that the governments of the day backed away from their ill-conceived plans and worked with us to resolve those situations. And in 1997 our members were among the more than 126,000 education workers who walked out of their workplaces and shut down the entire education system for two full weeks to protest Mike Harris’s Bill 160.
Whether we like it or not, our history tells us that every now and then the battle to defend public education has to be waged within Queen’s Park or on its lawns, out front of our worksites and in the streets. And now, unfortunately, the Ford government appears determined to present us with just such a moment.
On March 15—perhaps the bleakest day in Ontario education history—the government announced that over $700 million will be slashed from the province’s secondary school budget, and at least 25 per cent of our teacher positions will be eliminated over four years. We know, because the government is attacking the average class size, that some classes could easily balloon to 40 or 45 students if there is going to be the continuation of any smaller programs. A total of 34,000 classes will be cut across the province. It is not yet clear what impact this announcement will have on support staff jobs, but we do know that when school boards see funding lines cut, support staff positions are often jeopardized.
We have been attempting sincerely, since their election, to reach out to this government to provide them with meaningful advice about how to improve the education system. The Minister of Education, however, has seen fit to meet with me only once, for 30 minutes, back in October, despite the radical and destructive changes she’s proposing.
We are, of course, working on many other fronts, and we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to defend our members and the education system in which they work.
But, in the end, the union is not the leadership at Provincial Office or even at the local level. The union is, in fact, the collective body of members, working in solidarity with one another to defend each other’s interests. An active and engaged membership is our greatest defense against these outrageous government attacks on our work.
As we resist this latest round of assaults on Ontario’s education system, we need to remember that no one can guarantee us victory. But to refuse to fight—to capitulate to this effort to cheapen and demean education—would be unworthy of us as educators who care for the well-being of our students and our colleagues. Our goal will always remain to win everything we can by resisting.
I urge all OSSTF/FEESO members to stay informed and engaged in the coming weeks and months. We have faced tough times in the past and we will again. But when this current storm passes, we must be in a position to say we did everything we could to defend our students and ourselves from these latest barbarians at our schools’ gates.