The Surging NDP in the Ontario Election & Prospects for Education.
Well well. We all went into this election profoundly disappointed with the Liberals but also deeply fearful of a Tory government and lacking confidence that the NDP had the infrastructure in place to take full advantage of a situation where both ‘major’ parties provoke the gag reflex. What a pleasant shock for many in education and beyond to suddenly see an NDP that has shot past the hapless Liberals and are now 1% ahead of the Tories at 37% to 36% for the PCs. The Liberals have dropped like a stone to 22% (IPSOS). Election outcome predictors now say a Tory victory is far from certain.
The real decline for the Liberals began with the privatisation of Hydro One (the transmission lines). Progressives who had parked their vote with the Grits as the stronger party to ward off the Tories felt deeply betrayed by this and so began a polling decline from which the Grits have never really recovered. Who would have thought public ownership was such a potent issue in 2018, with the public clearly on the public ownership side.
Many Liberals we are sure cannot believe the fact that that the education community has turned on them since they clearly tried to position themselves as the ‘education party’ under both McGuinty and Wynne. Their act began to wear thin with Bill 115, ordering striking teachers back to work in 2012. They were given a stinging rebuke by the Supreme Court who ruled against the government that Bill 115 was unconstitutional and they were forced into serious and expensive remedies and a huge loss of face. Teachers never really trusted the Liberals after the “Putting students first act” was introduced. Even the title was profoundly insulting.
Beyond Bill 115, the schools are totally disintegrating before our very eyes from lack of maintenance and repair and the starving school boards can barely keep the lights on without substantial provincial support which has not been forthcoming. Parents notice the dilapidated schools and feel their children deserve better.
When the Liberals first campaigned for office against the incumbent Eves Tories, much was made of the ‘funding formula’ for education K-12. The Tories were excoriated for the “Mike Harris funding formula” but after 14 years, the Liberals have totally failed to deliver a new formula. They have ‘tinkered’ with the disastrous Mike Harris formula.
The Liberals are far too enamoured with the EQAO standardized testing regime. Every single year, the EQAO reports that the poor kids did badly, the rich kids did well and the middle class kids were... well..., in the middle. Test scores track parental income with about 99% accuracy. Little actual progress is made because under the Liberals, poverty has actually increased markedly. More poor kids = more low scores as surely as the sun comes up in the morning. This is the crux of the great math scores fixation. Testing does absolutely nothing to mitigate results. If it did, the USA would be #1 not #17 on PISA. The NDP has announced the end of every student testing and an examination of random testing.
The NDP seems to have done their first deep dive into education policy in decades. The usual deal for all parties, is to concentrate on the north and south pole of education - pre K and post secondary. The NDP offers the best plan with free daycare for incomes below $40K and a sliding scale averaging $12/day above that. In post secondary, loans will be done away with in favour of grants for those who qualify, AKA free tuition. Also in postsecondary, there will be a cancellation of interest on existing loans and no private debt collectors for student loans. A long sought French university will be built. However the NDP has something to say K-12 as well. Starting with a complete overhaul of the notorious funding formula, a cap on kindergarten of 26, no split K-1 situations, a 10 year $16 Billion fund to fix the schools, and the destreaming of grades 9-10. There will also be a moratorium on school closings.
The teachers’ unions who also include many support staff units, have all shifted their positions from past elections. All three large federations have diverse membership who have a considerable say in conventions on feds overall direction. There are many Liberals and many New Democrats, plus a smattering of farther left, some Greens.
In the past, this has turned the feds into primarily anti-Tory political entities. Strategic voting has been the result, supporting Liberal and NDP incumbents and best seconds in Tory held ridings. Since Liberals had more incumbents, and more seconds in Tory ridings, this has meant essentially more support for Liberals than the NDP. Disillusionment with the Liberals has shifted federation thinking.
The most dramatic announcement came from elementary public teachers - ETFO who announced full, unprecedented support for the NDP. President Sam Hammond said simply “the Liberals have not been working well with us in recent years.” OECTA the English Catholic union seems to have farmed out its decisions to its local units. Takes a lot of pressure off the center. OECTA has a pro Liberal reputation although it has many active Dippers.
The OSSTF strategy was more nuanced, quite sophisticated, but not so bold as ETFO. In the past, OSSTF along with ETFO and OECTA had followed a straight up strategic voting model, the net effect of which, favoured the Liberals due to their dominance. OSSTF also took a big leap to the left this election. In a nutshell, OSSTF decided to support the NDP in every riding where they ran first or second in 2014, including ridings where they were second to Liberals. They are only supporting a few Liberals where the Tories are close and the NDP is a distant third. This amounts to support for the NDP in 50 critical ridings. OSSTF President Harvey Bishoff will be taking a tour of Ontario, doing local press availabilities with endorsed NDP candidates and local OSSTF leaders. It is a good idea to get out of the Toronto bubble and get local media attention.
To make it work, there must be ‘buy in’ in the locals, OSSTF calls districts. As a result of a tiny number of central-local disagreements, a handful of ridings will be ignored. New rules mean the feds cannot donate to parties but neither can business. They can, however rally the troops and triage the ridings for maximum impact. In the long run this is better for internal union solidarity and external progressive politics.
Ontario also has a small teachers’ union, AEFO in French first language schools public and catholic. They usually concentrate on the fate of a few MPPs in Francophone areas of northern and eastern Ontario.
The teachers’ unions and the NDP is a natural fit since the NDP are the most vigorous supporters of both unions and the public sector. Until recent years, fear of the Tories has been the prime directive. In this election, disappointment with the Liberals is dominating the discussion as much as fear of the Tories. The Liberals took the support of the education community for granted. Big mistake.
Many thought it could never happen but the public school teachers in American Red GOP states finally blew up and began using one of the the oldest weapons in the Labour arsenal, the General Strike.
First a little background for Canadians not used to American politics. In the USA the Republican (conservative) Party uses the colour Red while the Democratic (nominally centrist to liberal) Party uses the colour Blue. States always won by the Republicans are known as Red States. As a general rule they are in the old south, the prairie and the mountain states but include Indiana, and often New Hampshire. The Democratic states or Blue states, are on both coasts plus the rust belt. Trump won by cracking the ‘Blue Wall’ of industrial rust belt states. States that swing between the parties are known as Purple states, Colorado and Nevada for example.
In recent decades, many Republican states have become known as Right-to-Work (RTW) states, generally meaning that there is no such thing as compulsory union membership. To further punish workers, and in our case teachers, most have laws forbidding strikes. The fascinating thing is that the teacher revolt is not coming from the highly unionized coastal and industrial states but from these ‘Red’ Republican, RTW conservative states. Many have not had a raise in 20 years. One Arizona teacher posted her pay stub on Facebook, showing her weekly wage at $320. Most teachers have a second gig waiting on tables or driving for Uber to survive.
Many Red states are under the influence of the billionaire Koch brothers organization, Americans for Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a billionaire sponsored legal organization that literally writes model legislation from the perspective of far right billionaires. It then leans on GOP state legislatures to enact them word for word, fill in name of state here___________.
In order to receive Republican nominations in many Red states, candidates need to take a pledge ‘never’ to raise taxes.
Many Red states have adopted positions that super majorities of up to 75% of state house electors are needed to raise taxes, but taxes can be lowered with a simple majority. Recently, Red state GOP majorities have begun to attack teachers’ pensions which almost alone has pushed teachers into the streets, especially in Kentucky. This is awkward for conservative GOP legislators as teachers and their constituents demand more money for schools while big money donors are still seeking bigger tax cuts.
The same anti tax mentality in these states, attempts to shift graduated income taxes over to unpopular sales taxes so they fall on regular folks without regards to income. The Red states took instant advantage of the 2007-8 financial crisis to slash funding for education but have never restored the funding as the economy improved. This is the classic ‘Disaster Capitalism’ Naomi Klein describes in her book of the same name.
Notwithstanding the illegality of teacher strikes in most GOP RTW states, teachers are using General Strike tactics because they have the legislators over a barrel. The teacher shortage is so severe that what can legislators do, fire them all? There are thousands of unfilled positions. In many Red states there are Blue Democratic states just across a local border that pay much higher wages and also have teacher shortages. This process is hollowing out Red state schools. Thousands more positions are filled with unqualified teachers. Eight percent leave teaching every year. Firing these teachers for striking simply means no school indefinitely. In Texas, the penalty for striking teachers is to have their teaching certificate revoked. The strike has not yet spread to Texas but many believe it may. A Titanic struggle is about to hit North Carolina as we read this.
A handy guide to the Red state teacher revolt.
Across the Red state areas, local Democratic activists are making common cause with the teachers and support staff and as a result, winning special elections, which we call by-elections. Ironically, Facebook has been a prime organizing tool for fed up pedagogues.
Nationally regarded teacher educator, Linda Darling Hammond notes the strikes are about more than wages. The buildings are falling apart, the textbooks are 15 years old, the class sizes are huge, many school districts function on a 4 day week to save bussing money and the dropouts are in the school to prison pipeline. Hammond says the root of the problem is poverty and America needs another War on Poverty.
Teachers blame the GOP economic model. Americans have the peculiar situation where increasingly the voter base of the conservative, business, right wing party is poor people and the middle class votes Democrat. We all know America has 50 states but only 4 Red states are in the top 25 by average income, Alaska, Wyoming, Georgia and Texas.
What does the American Red state teacher revolt have to teach Canadian teachers and progressives in general? It should be obvious to most that teachers who vote for the conservative parties in their jurisdictions are voting for their own executioner but many Ontario teachers will walk out the door June 7th and vote for Doug Ford notwithstanding the recent experiences with Mike Harris. I’m sure many supported the BC Liberals and some will vote United Conservative in AB next year. Teachers unions and other public sector unions must be far more explicit with advice on who to vote for and why and not live in fear of their own members.
Teachers cannot wait for this situation to get so bad before organizing and fighting back.The General Strike is always the nuclear weapon of labour relations but it does not hurt to remind employers that you know how to use it. Object lesson - Kathleen Wynne in Ontario was too quick to order striking teachers and college profs back to work.These wounds accumulate until you are driven from office.
The American Red state teachers now have the full support of their working class constituents. This bond is critical. Strike action only takes you so far and is never sustainable. The teachers and support staff need to break the hold of these Red state GOP conservatives and their big money sponsors. That takes ongoing, concerted political work. Many teachers in Red states are religious, even Evangelical. They also like to hunt so they like their guns. Many white teachers still harbour some white supremacist views or come from families who do. They end up politically as economic radicals but social conservatives. This is on the wain but still potent. The GOP preys on these ties to maintain control. Our Canadian situation is not so extreme except in certain communities.
At the end of the day, teachers and support staff in both countries must realize that we are all participants in a class war being waged from above. We have powerful enemies with big money and influence but we are also very powerful by using both our economic power through the strike and our political power through our numbers and education to fight for the world we want to live in.
We need to open our eyes. Even in Canada, we are in a slow motion sometimes imperceptible, class war that will certainly not end in our grandchildren’s lifetime.
The best defence is a powerful offence.