In November 2022, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU-CUPE) went on a mass wildcat strike against Bill 28—the Ontario government’s attempt to legislate education workers back to work and make their otherwise-legal strike illegal. Bill 28 would have suspended education workers’ Charter rights in order to shut down their strike.
Despite these heavy-handed threats, OSBCU members went on strike anyway. With the support of the whole labour movement, which threatened a general strike if the province didn’t back down, OSBCU members managed to defeat Bill 28.
The Monitor sat down with OSBCU President Laura Walton, who led the strike, to talk about how it happened, what it means, and where we go from here. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jon Milton: What was the organizing model that allowed OSBCU to build the movement that defeated Bill 28?
Laura Walton: I think there's two pieces on how we got there—there was the pressures being felt by workers, and then the organizing in response to those pressures.
In 2019, we had our second piece of legislation that capped our wages. The first time, of course, was in 2012, under the Liberals with Bill 115. And in both cases, as somebody involved in the union—more than just, you know, a dues paying member—I looked at it and said that this can't be what it is. If every time you go to the bargaining table, the government just has this ability to legislate you, then we've got some real big problems in our society and within unions themselves.
So I started doing a lot of research, and talking to different people, talking to folks who had been in fights prior to me, and learning about how they did what they did. Andy Hansen is one that comes to mind. We actually are from the same area, he'd been an ETFO president. I was looking at his book and had talked to him about, you know, how did it come to be? We realized that when you look at it historically, people didn't rely on social media, people didn't rely on emails, people didn't rely on, you know, really cool memes or anything like that. They talked to one another.
When you think back in labour history, that really is the common catalyst—talking to workers and empowering workers, who take it into their own hands. That's where major gains were won.
And so then we started organizing. There was [union trainer] Jane McAlevey, yes, a lot of it was modeled off of that. But unlike Jane, who has a more of a staff-centered approach, we really approached it from a perspective of "center the workers in the fight." So the vast majority of the folks that we had doing this organizing work, only a very few of them were booked off full time. The vast majority of them were doing this work off of the side of their desk, and just having conversations—and not just conversations in their worksite. We were looking at workers from a holistic perspective—yes, you work with me at this school, but what else do you do? Oh, you're a football mom or a hockey dad, or your kid goes to guides, or you belong to this faith group. We really started to learn more about workers that way.
Jon Milton: So the distinction you're making between OBSCU’s organizing and the McAlevey model is that you organized through direct worker-to-worker organizing.
Laura Walton: Our model was worker-to-worker, because our work sites are so spread out. You might only have two or three people. So worker-to-worker—with somebody helping them keep it all organized—worked really, really well. I'm not going to say that what worked in our worksites is going to work for everybody's worksites. But you've got to start somewhere. And it doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be done. So you pivot a lot along the way.
Jon Milton: You make reference to past struggles that we can learn from—you reference talking to Andy Hanson from the ETFO, and learning from labour history. What are some of the things that you're taking from the history of the labour movement, and what are some of the things that you've been doing that are new?
Laura Walton: The first thing that I'm taking from labour history is that it didn't all happen at once. It was a series of gains, one after another after another. That really got us to where we are today. Unfortunately, the last 40 years have not been as momentous, you know, in the labour movement as they could have been.
I think a lot of that comes from this drive towards individualism.We can sit around and say it's because Ronald Reagan laid off all of the air traffic controllers—you can say that. But really, what I think happened is that we started to become more and more isolated as a society, and we stopped talking to each other. And we need to talk to each other.
When I'm seeing someone like Pierre Poilievre doing a video with an Early Childhood Educator, and this ECE believes that he is going to put more money in her pocket, it just shows me that we haven't been talking to workers. Talking to them and listening—like what is your real struggle? And what are you going to do about it? That was how we're doing things a little bit differently.
It isn't about workers talking to or at workers, it's about listening to workers and what their struggles are, and then empowering them to actually make change, and what that change will look like and how they can do it. I think that is what we're doing differently. I'm not here to fix anything for anyone, but I will fight alongside you every step of the way.
Jon Milton: In my experience, organizing—particularly when that organizing leads to victory—is contagious. You see the effects that it has on people, it makes them want to organize more. Has that been your experience since November?
Laura Walton: I think so. When we have successes, people want to build on it. But what I find interesting is, it's workers want to build on it. It's typically workers themselves who come and ask us how we did what we did. And what I find really neat is workers engaging and really holding leaders accountable and saying "this is what I think we need to do." That, to me, is very exciting as well.
It's contagious, but it's also exhausting. There's like this moment where you think okay, we've done it. Now what? I think that's the next battle. It's not a one and done—this is a model that now needs to be part of our culture moving forward.
I am seeing it spreading. It's growing more and more, what really excites me is how it's changed the way education worker activists approach problems.
So currently, there's threats from the OMERS sponsor corporation, to make cuts to the OMERS pension plan—which our members rely on for a decent wage when we retire. And it was so neat to listen to education workers approach this problem from an organizing perspective, which was far more empowering than just approaching it from a panic—oh, God, this is happening, let's write a strongly worded letter and do any action and call it a day. So that was really exciting for me—to watch workers say, okay, we know what to do. That to me was really, really exciting to watch.
Jon Milton: You mentioned that the big question now is what happens in the future. Where do we go from here? What do you see happening? What do you hope happens?
Laura Walton: Well, I hope we come to a place where we can ignite the labour movement. What we had in November was a moment. And it was a magical moment, a wonderful moment, a hard-fought moment. I don't want to downplay the effort and the organizing that happened. But it was one moment, only one moment.
What we need to do now is build a movement—a movement that brings us to a place where governments recognize that devaluing and disrespecting workers will not be tolerated. Not to sound like a cliche, but the power of the people will always be stronger than the people in power. I really hope that we can get to that point for my kids and for my grandchildren. All labour has value, but for such a long time, we've undervalued those that are toiling while we've rewarded those who are making profit off the labour.
The other thing that I would say is that I hope this organizing model doesn't get confined to labour. I think there's a lot of community issues that labour can lend a hand in—and community can be pushing labour to do better, as well.
Moving towards that common good is one of the reasons why we made our bargaining public. We're a public sector union—the public should know what's happening in our bargaining! So really lifting up some of the issues that we're seeing in our communities is something I'm hoping we'll also take off from here, because that's really super important as we move forward.
Jon Milton: One of the really powerful things in November was watching the way that, while workers were really at the forefront, there was also an enormous amount of community support. How did OSBCU build those links with the community?
Laura Walton: We started even before bargaining proposals happened. We did outreach with parents, and the Ontario Autism Coalition and the Ontario Parents Action Network. We said we're going into bargaining, we know that our working conditions are your children's learning conditions, so talk to us about what you need to see. This isn't just about us, it’s also what the parents and students and families need. We had an opportunity to do a great deal of networking, about what the community needed to see for their students. And I think that was really, really important.
Then just going back to that holistic worker thing—workers used to think well, I'm just an EA, or I'm just a custodian. We said, well what else do you do? And they would say something like, well, my son plays hockey. So while you're sitting in the stands with your hockey moms, you can talk about these issues! Those people already like you. They want your son to be on that team. If you had more disposable income, your son would be able to do the hockey camps. So talk to them about the importance of this issue. And I think that that was really our secret—we took it away from "the union," and it just became "Max's mom needs this." And I think that was a really important piece.
What the right wing wants to do is keep us divided, to pigeonhole people in kind of interest based politics. And we encourage people to look beyond that. In your faith group, for example those folks want you to be successful. Talk to them about why this is important. They already have trust built in you. And I think that really changed the narrative from "us versus them," to one where it was truly all of us versus Ford.
A lot of people would say to me, well, I don't have anything. But then we would keep talking. And you would find out that they go camping with so-and-so once a year. If that's all they had, then we would say okay, connect to the people there! There was a point where people were literally talking to workers in Tim Hortons. Anywhere that they could talk, they were talking. We actually put out, at Thanksgiving, the “Let's Talk Turkey” campaign—which was a little campaign designed for you to have difficult conversations around the Thanksgiving table. We all had that one Uncle Norm, the staunch conservative. That took off like wildfire, because people were talking at their tables! And Uncle Norm, as much as he's a staunch conservative, wants you to be successful. That type of thing broke down a ton of barriers for us.
Through all this, we just keep hoping that we can ignite one more person. If we can ignite that next person, it just is another fire that's going to continue to grow.