Learning from the Harris years

In perilous times, the past offers valuable lessons

Aerial view photo of Bill 160 protesters at Queen's Park, 1997

Editor’s note: In November 2018, David Moss, former Director of OSSTF/FEESO’s Communications/Political Action Department, delivered an address to local leaders who were gathered in Toronto to develop strategies to counter the anticipated actions of the Ford government. The following has been excerpted from Mr. Moss’s remarks.

The last 100 years have seen generations of OSSTF/FEESO members and leaders faced with daunting challenges as they strived to protect public education from governments of all political stripes. The new generation of OSSTF/FEESO leaders, represented by you here today, may soon be challenged again.

Let’s travel back to June 8, 1995. Mike Harris leads the Ontario Conservatives to a majority government under the slogan “The Common Sense Revolution.” Flash forward to June 7, 2018. Doug Ford leads the Ontario Conservatives to a majority government with his slogan “For the People.”

Harris promised he would pay for his “Revolution” by finding billions of dollars in government efficiencies and eliminating government waste. Doug Ford promises to finance his extremely vague plan “For the People” by finding six billion dollars in government efficiencies and eliminating government waste.

Are we about to relive history? Are there any comparisons we can already make?

Where will Doug Ford and his government find their six billion dollars in efficiencies? Well, the two largest budget lines are health care and education. How will government efficiencies affect
OSSTF/FEESO members in schools boards and universities? You have already seen 100 million dollars of approved funding for school repairs vanish as one of the first cuts announced by the government. Just last week another 200 million dollars approved for new university campuses in Markham, Milton and Brantford was cancelled by the government. Three hundred million dollars is a lot of money but it is a long way from 6 billion. What other cuts does Doug Ford have in mind for the education sector?

I personally have no idea, but history shows us that you, as leaders in OSSTF/FEESO, probably will need to make difficult decisions perhaps sooner rather than later. To make those tough decisions you will need facts; you need to monitor and research all the government actions; you will need to develop communication strategies to counter government spin and rhetoric; and, you need to prepare your membership so they are ready to act with you if and when push comes to shove! My focus today is to help you relate historical success to your current preparations.

Let’s revisit 1995. What can we learn from OSSTF/FEESO’s actions then that may be applicable for you now? Harris was elected in June 1995 and on October 28, 1997 teachers and education workers in every public and Catholic school—elementary, secondary, English and French speaking school—shut down their workplaces in this province for two weeks. Members walked out to protest the government’s attacks on publicly- funded education and on their collective bargaining rights. They didn’t take that action on the spur of the moment. They took that action after two years of OSSTF/FEESO preparation and membership activation. They walked out knowing they would lose salary and benefits while on the street, and not knowing how long they would be on the street. And, they did so knowing there was no strike pay from the union. Most of all they did so, because they believed that such collective action was necessary to protect the values they believed in—the supreme importance of a fully funded public education system and the paramount importance of collective bargaining to protect not just their working conditions but the learning conditions of their students.

During that two-year lead up to the protest, Federation leadership maintained open lines of dialogue with the government. This was no easy task! Meetings with ministry officials were invaluable as we began to map out the Harris agenda with respect to education. It was ministry officials who leaked the infamous speech by Education Minister Snobelen, telling them the government would have to create a crisis in education to make the changes they wanted. That grainy video became an invaluable tool in our campaign to expose the true motives of the government to our membership and the public at large.

Today, you face a unique challenge. You have a new generation of members with no recollection of that protest or the reasons for it. Their collective agreements have been negotiated far from their local worksites at central tables. Your membership is busy going about their daily work while Doug Ford looks for ways to find a minimum six billion dollars in budget cuts.

Even with all the negative decisions Ford has already made, if you simply called on your members today to do what teacher and educational workers did in October 1997, would they follow you? Believe me, the members of OSSTF/FEESO in 1997 did not walk out of their worksites simply because the union told them to do it.

So, how in two years did we convince our membership that they should make this personal principled sacrifice? The simple answer was leadership, local member education and planning. But providing that leadership, educating members about government actions and developing an effective action plan was anything but simple. And I can assure you it will not be simple now. However, the success of any action plan you develop will require that your membership, not just Federation leadership, has ownership of that action.

I remember those 1997 challenges—a new government initiative almost every day much like you are seeing from Ford. Programs were cancelled and workers were attacked through legislation.

The first thing we had to learn was that not every government action could be our line in the sand. This wasn’t easy, as every single decision they announced, just like today, had negative implications for our membership. Our provincial leadership and our local leadership learned quickly that they could not lead the fight on every issue. To use an analogy that I think sums up our choices at that time: like the dog backed into a corner we had to learn to avoid biting when a growl would do.

We needed the two years to develop our strategies. We needed the time to do the research necessary on the likely actions the government might take, and, we needed that time to educate and prepare our membership. We tried to use every government action and piece of legislation as a learning tool. I have no doubt Ford will continue to give you lots of opportunity to react to terrible legislation.

In January of 1997, Harris passed Bill 103, City of Toronto Act, amalgamating the existing six school boards in Toronto into the current Toronto District School Board (TDSB). This was one of the first actions they justified by proclaiming that Ontarians had to learn to do “more with less.” This would become the government’s mantra. We countered this narrative with the line “you don’t get more for less, you get less with less.” We attacked Bill 103, arguing that it would lead to less accountability for trustees and less opportunity for parents to have input into their children’s education. This was the message we sent to our members, not just in Toronto, but across the province, and they quickly began to understand that this action by the government impacted them directly. So we growled very loudly but did not bite. This was not the issue our members were ready to make that personal sacrifice for. But that issue would come. Working collectively, local leaders, the Provincial Executive and Provincial Office staff developed an Action Plan to take to the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA) in March 1997. The delegates approved a motion for a provincial sanction if the government moved to restrict collective bargaining rights. There was no mention what form the sanction would take. It was a statement of principle, supported by the delegates at AMPA. This very loud public growling got the attention of the media. The message—all was not well in Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution.”

We could have left the vote at AMPA as the trigger for the eventual protest in October. But, the membership still did not have ownership of the decision that would affect them directly. In April and May general meetings were held with the membership in every District to explain the provincial action plan and answer their questions and concerns.

At the end of May our members growled very loudly when an all member vote endorsed the action plan, as passed at AMPA, with 84.2 per cent in favour. The members were beginning to take ownership of the Federation’s plan. Their growl was heard. The media was buzzing, but the government ploughed ahead.

At the same time, we found other means to rally our members. We supported other groups directly affected by government actions. When the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) was forced to strike we supported them on picket lines. When Harris began cutting the jobs of nurses, who he compared to obsolete hula hoop makers, we came to their defense. All the time this was happening, we communicated to our members why they, too, should be concerned with these actions.

We supported the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Days of Action in London, Hamilton, Kitchener–Waterloo, Thunder Bay, Peterborough, Toronto and St. Catharines. We encouraged local membership in each of the boards in the designated cities to support the Day of Action and walk off their jobs for one day. They did so in record numbers. Public rallies were held in these communities on a Saturday and we bused members to them by the thousands. We supported our labour friends when they took the lead on issues impacting their membership.

Our preparation strategy was based on this simple belief: when you need a friend it is too late to look for one. We pushed for our members to join Labour Councils and actively seek out allies. We encouraged local leaders to meet with and establish positive relationships with local media outlets. We lobbied all MPPs with a particular emphasis on government members. We wanted them to know we were watching, we had valid concerns, and we were getting ready.

So, from June 1995 until October 1997 we “growled” a lot but we didn’t “bite.” As part of our Action Plan, we built our local structure in preparation for action. We had active Communications and Political Action committees (CPAC) in every District. Local leadership educated local media and the provincial leadership worked on establishing positive contacts with provincial media.

In the mid-nineties, of course, communications from Provincial Office to local leaders and the membership was very different. There was no email and no social media. Urgent communications to local leadership was by a fax. Provincial newsletters and local newsletters were always paper hard copies delivered to worksites. Very few people had cell phones, and many Districts had no local time release for union business. You have a tremendous advantage today with the technology available to you and local time release officers to keep your membership informed, and to get your message out to the public at large. My advice is simple. Use it! Do that prep now-not later.

In October 1997, it finally was our time to “bite.” The government introduced Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act, which of course was designed to do just the opposite. It removed the right of school boards to tax for education funding and transferred funding for education to the province. It introduced the flawed funding formula that you still struggle with to this day.

Fortunately, all teacher affiliates were onside with the need to take action on Bill 160. But not all affiliates had prepared the same way. OSSTF/FEESO members had already endorsed the action through the all member vote. Other affiliates did not take such a vote and that top down model of decision making haunted them right to the end of the protest.

During September and early October 1997, all-affiliate rallies and information sessions were held across the province. An estimated 85 per cent of members in all affiliates turned out to show their support. These rallies culminated on October 7 when 24,000 teachers, education workers, and parents jammed Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with chants of “we won’t back down” with thousands more, unable to get in, echoing the chants outside on the streets. The loudest growl I’ve ever heard.

When the call came on Friday, October 25, that—barring a last minute truce with the government over the weekend—the protest would begin on Monday, October 28, all our preparation paid off. The picket signs were in place, gathering places for members away from their worksites were in place, and most importantly, our members were ready. On Monday morning, bright and early, they appeared on mass at every publicly-funded education worksite across the province. The local, provincial, and yes, the national media were in shock. The unions had done it, they had shut down public education in Ontario. For two weeks, often in snowy blustery weather, our members stood shoulder to shoulder to protect public education. It was truly the proudest two weeks of my 44 years with OSSTF/FEESO. I still proudly wear the pin today given to every OSSTF/FEESO who participated in the protest.

This unprecedented event took place because our members knew what the issues were. It was their fight. They knew they were defending public education and their own rights as educational workers. When they were interviewed on picket lines across the province they spoke eloquently and passionately. They were our best spokespersons. When they returned to work after two weeks, polling indicated that 64 per cent of the public supported them and believed Bill 160 should be withdrawn. Imagine gaining support when you’ve closed schools for two weeks!

Did we get rid of Bill 160? Sadly, no. But the Harris government did back away from some of the most contentious elements of the legislation, and that was a victory. Did we improve our standing with parents and the public at-large? Yes. Did our members walk taller and prouder? Absolutely. If our membership had not taken ownership of our action, it would never have materialized. That ownership, from the bottom up and not from the top down, was crucial. As it was in 1995, now is the time for the leaders of this Federation to ensure the members are aware of the political climate. Start “growling.” Start that dialogue between the leadership and the members that will lay the groundwork for fighting whatever Ford sends your way. Ensure that members understand the effects of the government’s cancellation of the labour reforms passed by the previous government, and the effects on their students and parents of scrapping 15-dollar minimum wage. Support local environmental groups fighting the Doug Ford inaction on climate change. Get your local CPAC fully mobilized. Lobby your MPP. Start cultivating positive relationships with local media. This must become your priority now, not later. Decide how you can use those social media platforms to get your message out and do it!

I believe what we were able to accomplish in 1997 was specifically because we laid the groundwork first. Any success we achieved was only possible with the total buy-in and support of our members.

And, if and when you are forced to take action, I can assure you that I, and many of that generation of OSSTF/FEESO members who chose to “bite” in 1997, will stand with you.

Bill 160 Protests, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

Bill 160 Protests, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

Bill 160 Protests, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

Bill 160 Protests, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

Bill 160 Protests, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

Bill 160 Protest, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1997 (OSSTF/FEESO archives)

About David Moss
David Moss is a retired OSSTF/FEESO member and was the Director of Communications/Political Action Department 2002–2005.

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