On November 10, 1997, Ontario’s teachers returned to work after staging a two-week walkout to protest the radical, anti-democratic changes imposed by the Conservative government of Mike Harris. While the protest failed to stop Bill 160 from becoming law, it was a defeat for Harris and his so-called “common sense revolution” (CSR) in both public opinion and the courts.
Mike Harris’ plan to overhaul Ontario’s education system did not entirely go as planned. Introduced as the Education Quality Improvement Act, Bill 160 was a massive, 226 page plan to radically centralize power in the hands of the Minister of Education and the Cabinet, and then impose standards that had previously been set in the collective agreements negotiated by school boards with their local teachers and their unions. It imposed more work, with less time to do it as the government secretly planned to slash education spending.
Ontario’s teachers walked out in protest.
At the time, the protest was the largest work action by teachers in North American history, involving 126,000 teachers. Picket lines were set up across the province. Demonstrations took place at schools, on the streets, and at the offices of Members of Provincial Parliament (MPPs). Teachers and their unions organized mass rallies, including one on the front lawn of the legislature at Queen’s Park that drew thousands.
The government responded with a propaganda campaign, spending millions on television ads in an attempt to label the protest as an “illegal strike” and teacher unions as selfish “special interests” – but people were not buying it. One week into the protest, a poll found 63% of Ontarians wanted the government to scrap its reforms.
Harris’ attempt to have the protest declared an illegal strike by the courts also struck‑out when judges ruled that the teachers’ action was a legitimate protest. He responded by threatening back-to-work legislation to silence and punish the teachers instead.
After two weeks away from work, many teachers felt they had made their point and voted to end the strike.
No, they had not stopped the government’s plans to shift power away from local school boards, but they had won over public opinion. Talking with students, parents and media, the teachers and their unions exposed hidden aspects of the government’s agenda – plans to lay off teachers and cut education budgets that Harris himself had denied during the election campaign.
The solidarity shown by Ontario’s unions in support of the teachers and their protest also planted the seeds of future resistance to the ideologically driven austerity agenda that was at the heart of the Harris CSR.
Canada’s unions have a long history of standing up to the unfairness of government austerity, especially the ferocious and cult-like austerity seen in the 1990s under conservative-minded governments lead by Mike Harris in Ontario, Ralph Klein in Alberta and more recently under Liberal governments in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.
Funding tax cuts for wealthy investors and powerful interests by slashing public spending on health care, education, public infrastructure and social programs is an old corporate trick. So is undermining the unions, journalists, public institutions and social movements that stand up against them.
The 1997 Ontario teachers’ protest was a moment when people stood up and said enough. While it did not stop the government, it made them blink and it woke people up.