A review of the 2019-2020 round of collective bargaining

A tough fight, but winnable

In the 2019-2020 round of K-12 collective bargaining, OSSTF/FEESO led the pushback against the Ford government’s efforts to massively increase class size and to impose mandatory online learning on secondary students. Those fights were largely won, with average secondary class sizes bargained down to 23:1 from the government’s proposed 28:1, reinstatement of the supports for student funding, a health care spending account for education workers, and opt-outs for online learning. 

Then came COVID-19 which saw students and our Members alike put through two years (and potentially more) of teaching and learning under incredibly difficult circumstances. 

We don’t know what new challenges COVID-19 is going to give us, but we do know that education workers, teachers, and students need stability and a sincere commitment to giving the public education system the necessary resources to make up for lost time and come back stronger. Unfortunately, we also know that the Ford government will use every tool it has to make cuts and open the door for privatization. We can also be pretty sure that the Ford government learned from the last round of bargaining and is eager to give education unions,—and OSSTF/FEESO in particular,—a bit of payback. 

That’s the context in which OSSTF/FEESO recently gave notice of our intent to bargain as the first step in negotiating a new central agreement for education workers and teachers in the public, K-12 system. And if we learned anything from the last round of bargaining, it’s that in bargaining and in politics, context is everything. 

After the last round of bargaining, OSSTF/FEESO conduced an extensive review of the union’s overall strategy and the specific tactics and actions used to support that strategy. The review made use of polling data, media analysis, consultants’ reports, semi-structured interviews, and focus groups. This article presents some of the findings from that review. The concluding section, below, reports our four key findings from the review, but there are also two themes that the reader should keep in mind. 

First, we are in a very different political and bargaining context than we were in 2019-2020. Not all of the things we did three years ago would work if we tried them again now. We need to give careful consideration to the relationship between context and strategy and cultivate a collective ability to be flexible, adaptable, and creative.

Second, we need to recall the most important lesson from 2019-2020. Even governments that appear to hold all the cards can be made to back down. In 2019, the Ford government seemed unstoppable, but OSSTF/FEESO’s novel, coherent, and well-executed strategy helped to fight off the worst of the government’s attacks. We can do that again. It will likely be a lengthy and difficult fight, but it will also be a winnable fight.  

Figure 1

A NOVEL STRATEGY:
POLITICAL BARGAINING

OSSTF/FEESO’s biggest departure from past practices came from the decision to pursue what we have been calling “political bargaining.” In the past, OSSTF/FEESO—like other education and public sector unions in Ontario—kept bargaining strategy almost entirely separate from our media and communications activities. Traditional bargaining meant engaging in good-faith give-and-take at the bargaining table. Skilled bargainers  make good gains by strategically revealing priorities and making convincing arguments. They were especially likely to succeed when they had the backing of a strong strike vote and committed, mobilized Membership. Communications around bargaining came mostly in the form of updates to Members and occasional media availabilities.

Political bargaining turned this approach on its head.

Because the Ford government made it clear—even before bargaining began—that they were going to pursue massive strips, the traditional give-and-take of bargaining was off the table. No bargaining-table strategy and no strike vote would create the leverage necessary to avoid concessions. Where past bargaining strategies treated public opinion as an afterthought, in this round OSSTF/FEESO made public opinion central to our strategy. The Ontario Autism Coalition had already shown that the Ford government could be made to back down when subjected to enough public pressure. OSSTF/FEESO needed to do the same thing.

Political bargaining, then, relied on a robust communications campaign to shift public opinion and apply pressure on the government. The campaign targeted the obvious groups—students and families with children in the K-12 public system—but it went further to show the 75 percent of Ontarians who do not have kids in the K-12 system that larger classes and mandatory online learning would have a negative impact on them as well. The strategy positioned OSSTF/FEESO as the authoritative voice on public education in Ontario. It showed Ontarians that we were reasonable, responsible, and guided by evidence about class sizes and education funding.

Figure 2

Our review of the 2019-2020 round of bargaining showed that the communications strategy had some major successes. Polling data gathered between December 2019 and March 2020 showed that the public generally saw OSSTF/FEESO as more trustworthy than the government.  

Journalists also came to rely on OSSTF/FEESO as the authoritative voice on education issues during bargaining. We looked at all articles related to collective bargaining in the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Sun, and the Thunder Bay Newswatch to see how well OSSTF/FEESO’s message was getting out. We found that OSSTF/FEESO far outpaced the other Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) affiliates in terms of how often we were quoted in bargaining-related stories. As Figure 3 shows, almost half of union quotes in bargaining stories came from OSSTF/FEESO. 

Figure 3. OTF affiliates: Total quotations 

OTF Affiliates: Total Quotations

Count

% Total

OSSTF/FEESO

178

45.5%

ETFO

99

25.3%

OECTA

83

21.2%

AEFO

31

7.9%

A focused communications strategy kept the media’s attention on issues that were more favourable to OSSTF/FEESO than the government. Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, repeatedly tried to bring the focus onto compensation issues, including by falsely accusing OSSTF/FEESO of asking for $7 billion in salary increases. In fact, over the eight media availabilities the Minister held at Queen’s Park during bargaining, he accused the unions of being focused on compensation 52 times and only mentioned class sizes 31 times. That was his attempt to frame the debate. Polling again shows why the Minister would prefer to talk about compensation rather than class sizes: the public consistently saw OSSTF/FEESO as more reasonable on this and other issues.

Overall, there is good evidence that political bargaining succeeded in keeping public opinion on-side with OSSTF/FEESO’s bargaining goals. That created pressure on the government and on the Minister. It kept them off guard and off message. Consistent, evidence-based messaging communicated through a wide range of venues helped create this pressure, but even the best communications strategy would not have been enough to push back on the government’s worst proposals. Real strength came from our Members. Political bargaining was not just about a media campaign or savvy messaging. It was about OSSTF/FEESO  Members participating in more than two dozen distinct tactics to help move the political bargaining strategy forward. 

Figure 4

NOVEL TACTICS

OSSTF/FEESO’s review of the 2019-2020 bargaining found that among the 28 tactics we used during the campaign, 14 were either actions that OSSTF/FEESO had created ourselves, adopted from other successful campaigns, or had tried previously but in a smaller, less focused way. Most obvious among those tactics was transparent bargaining (posting all proposals and counter-proposals on a public website; for more detail, see: http://education-forum.ca/2020/11/26/transparent-bargaining/), but members were also introduced to information picketing, rotating strikes, fact-checking on social media, commissioning of a study from the Conference Board of Canada, and social media advertising that intentionally targeted conservative voters.

As part of our review, OSSTF/FEESO staff interviewed local leaders, Provincial Office staff, and members of the Provincial Executive. During the interviews there was general agreement that the tactics we used were relatively effective and relatively well-integrated. That is, not only did the tactics have a positive impact on their own, but they also worked together to have an even larger impact. The tactics considered to be most effective included our social media presence, rallies at Queen’s Park and elsewhere, information pickets, our use of polling and focus groups, research on the main issues, and transparent bargaining. The interviews also showed that participants saw connections among these tactics and that we gain momentum when we use effective, integrated tactics to support an overall strategy. 

CONCLUSION: KEY FINDINGS

Through interviews, media analysis, polling, and other data, we are able to draw four broad conclusions about the last round of bargaining. There is not enough space to go into them in detail here, but hopefully they can provide some food for thought for Members and allies as we head into what is likely to be another very difficult round of bargaining. 

Political bargaining was largely successful and ought to continue.

The other educations unions all ran campaigns that were comparable to our own political bargaining strategy. The Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) affiliates and the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) education-sector body, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSCBU) all used a combination of advertising, social media, fact-checking, and traditional media to shift public opinion and put pressure on the government. Not only should political bargaining continue, but it will work best if education unions and allies can work as collaboratively as possible to keep the public focused on protecting Ontario’s public education system.

Evidence-based campaigning increased OSSTF/FEESO’s credibility and decision-making.

Along with political bargaining, the Federation also embedded a new commitment to research and evidence into all aspects of campaigning. The data gathered for our bargaining review show that positioning OSSTF/FEESO as relying on evidence provided crucial support for political bargaining. Reliance on evidence increased the Federation’s credibility, provided assurances to local leaders and Members that the strategy was working, helped facilitate discussions between Members and the general public, and helped the union appropriately deploy a novel strategy and novel tactics. 

Novelty was an essential element of the campaign’s successes.

The review found that OSSTF/FEESO’s use of a novel strategy and novel tactics made OSSTF/FEESO unpredictable and therefore difficult for the government to manage. Our willingness to try new things left the government struggling to find a coherent message that would resonate with the general public. It’s important to remember, though, that the government will have learned from our successes last time and is likely working on their own ways to out-maneouvre us. We will have to continue to look for new opportunities and new ways to make sure the public is on board in our fight to protect public education.

Whether a tactic will work depends on the context. Some tactics can and should be used in the next round of bargaining, but not all of them.

A tactic—even a really good one—may only be successful in the right circumstances. For example, the most innovative tactic used this round—transparent bargaining—was a good strategy in the face of a hostile, cuts-driven government. It might not be the right strategy if the government comes after things the public doesn’t care about or think our members don’t deserve. We need to think carefully about what worked and why, what will work again, and—most importantly—whether we can come up with something new that will work even better this time.

About Chris Samuel
Chris Samuel is the Policy Analyst/Researcher at OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office.

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