Monday, July 8, 2013

OSSTF, Let's Talk Politics

As I've come to learn more and more about my union, I continue to find myself frustrated with its approach to politics.

Even after the Liberal Party of Ontario took away our bargaining rights and stripped our contracts, there is still support in OSSTF for the party - even support for Liberal candidates in Ontario's current by-elections. I strongly believe that recent history indicates that OSSTF members should seriously re-examine their "Anything But Conservative" election strategy. If we don't, we might find ourselves continuing to be complicit with a government that hurts public education and ignores collective bargaining rights.

Playing strategic got us to where we are. Since the Harris years, as far as I know, OSSTF mostly supported the Liberals, and, where the NDP had the upper hand, they received OSSTF's support instead. Basically, OSSTF chose Liberal or NDP candidates to support - whoever was going to beat the Conservatives.

And that strategy worked. Enough seats went Liberal, and in some places some went NDP, and OSSTF managed to negotiate collective agreements successfully for a decade. 

But then the Liberals decided to take a sharp turn to the right. The tired government, mired in multiple scandals, took a gamble that attacking education workers and their decent working conditions would undercut the appeal of the Conservatives. It didn't work, but the government stuck to its guns and used Bill 115 to impose contracts on education workers anyways.

And now it's by-election time again, and the old "better a Liberal than a Conservative" mindset seems to prevail in OSSTF. I just don't get it.

I suppose it's a strategy born out by fear - but let's examine that fear. Hudak stands for a lot of things that would obviously be incredibly disastrous for public education and union rights. If he were to secure a majority government, he could cut programs and enact politics that will cause lasting harm to workers and students for years to come. Fighting back against such assaults would involve a campaign of the magnitude OSSTF hasn't engaged in in years. It would be a massive undertaking involving the mobilization of education workers province-wide. And it would be costly; OSSTF would drain its strike fund, and workers would most likely lose multiple days of pay through participating in "illegal" strikes or political protests. It would be hard, and there would be costs.

Who knows, maybe OSSTF's political action can avoid the inevitable and stave off a Conservative government for another decade. But what's the cost of a continued "Anything but Conservative" strategy, even if it's rewarded with more Liberal governments? 

The cost of such a strategy is saying that we are so frightened of the Conservatives that we will support the Liberals even after they use an illegal law to strip our contracts. Kathleen Wynne will understand that she can get away with such behaviour in the future and still enjoy our support. All she has to do is raise the spectre of a Conservative government, and we'll settle for wage cuts, stripped benefits, and the restriction of our right to strike. 

If you've followed my analysis so far, you're likely now asking something like, "Well, ok, the Liberals should be punished, and they should know that our support is conditional on things like respect for the collective bargaining process. But, what are we to do? If we don't support the Liberals, what do we do instead? How do we work to avoid a Hudak government?"

The answer to such questions is: "I don't know." I just want education workers to start having this discussion.  How do we take into account the threat of a Conservative government, while at the same time draw a line in the sand with the Liberals and let them know that they won't get our support until they respect our rights to collective bargaining?

Whatever we decide, and there will be different decisions across the province, I hope that education workers consider more than the fear of a Hudak government that might never come to be.

And at the end of the day, despite OSSTF's support, the Liberals may well lose in a future general election anyways. And then it'd be time to have a different discussion: how to resist a Conservative austerity agenda, rather than how to help enable a Liberal one.

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