Toronto Substitute Teachers Action Caucus

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Our Story:
It's one thing to suffer neglect, obstruction or subversion from senior union officials. Such is not uncommon in our labour movement. But it's quite another story to have a democratic, activist and autonomous local bargaining unit, with one of the best collective agreements for its occupational group in Canada, viciously attacked, purged of its elected local leaders, and then have twenty years of gains wiped out in a single year.

It begins in 1983 when we unionized City of Toronto substitute teachers, secondary and elementary together. We became a local of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) refused to organize us. Then OSSTF led a raid on our secondary unit in 1986. We defeated the raid in a Labour Board-run vote. After a three-week long strike in 1990, we won break-through gains in job security (a capped list), pay for experience, a paid union-run professional development day, and access to shared-cost health benefits. We defended and improved on those gains as we completed 15 relatively happy years in OPSEU. 

But in late 1997, Mike Harris kidnapped us. He legislated us into the teachers' federations, separating secondary and elementary substitutes in the old downtown Toronto school board. (Some think this was a sop given for removing the principals and v.p.‚s from the teachers‚ unions.)

Immediately, substitute teachers faced a wall of hostility and waves of belittling treatment in OSSTF. Some of us had heard about the elitism, stifling formalism, and hyper-centralism of OSSTF, but up close and personal it was truly culture shock. Provincial leaders of the union visibly resented our local strength, our dedication to workers who they consider their inferiors, and our autonomy. In the 1998-99 round of teacher negotiations, provincial OSSTF officials promoted local teacher contracts that increased on-call duties and the general work load of regular teachers. As a result, they sacrificed the work and incomes of substitute teachers.

In 2001 a group consisting mostly of conservative, retired teachers, who work as substitute teachers to supplement their pension income, launched a little guerilla war inside our bargaining unit. They used parliamentary procedures to try to disrupt meetings. 

In June 2002 the progressive slate of incumbents and new activists defeated the conservative retirees-dominated slate in a very well-attended local election meeting. But the losers laid disciplinary charges against us inside OSSTF. The charges were frivolous, vexatious, absurd, at best exaggerated. They accused us of being rude to them; in reality they were gazing at their mirror image. 
But the truth didn‚t matter. They had OSSTF money, lawyers and political power behind them.

The Provincial Executive‚s publicly stated policy favours dissolving all the substitute teacher units into the full-time teacher units where substitutes would continue to pay dues but would have almost no audible voice. 

The OSSTF disciplinary body, the Judicial Council, made a mockery of due process, upheld a majority of the charges, and removed from office the 20-year long serving local President who had just been re-elected. They barred Barry Weisleder from holding office for 18 months. Upon appeal, they increased the ban to 32 months, and later to 44 months. 

OSSTF officials purged his replacement, Maureen Malmud, then they purged the entire elected bargaining team, and the entire elected executive.

They had already seized our operating funds in October 2002. In Spring 2003, provincial OSSTF put the entire Occasional Teachers‚ Bargaining Unit in trusteeship a kind of union jail that allows the top bureaucrats to take total control. 

During trusteeship the top brass "negotiated" a collective agreement. They gave away our job security, our paid P.D. and allowed the employer to erode our benefits. To ratify the sell-out deal they conducted a bogus mail-in ballot, Maggie Thatcher-style, preceded by propaganda mailed to every members' home. 

In the dead of winter, January 2003, the OSSTF Trustee in charge convened a meeting at an obscure location where officials helped push through an undemocratic replacement local constitution. Direct elections held at membership meetings were suddenly replaced by bogus mail-in votes.

Membership meetings, normally five times a year, were reduced to a minimum once a year. Membership on standing committees, reps. to union-management committees, and delegates to labour council always elected in the past, are now all appointed by the executive. The current executive, installed in a bogus mail-in vote, resists holding open meetings, even ignoring a valid membership petition submitted in August 2004.

Now we have a dire economic situation. Ordinary substitute teachers, workers who don't have pensions or other income, can barely make a living. Since the job security cap on the dispatch list was abandoned, the number of teachers on the dispatch list has increased by over 50%, while the number of daily jobs has declined. Most of the teachers added to the list are retirees. They are taking most of the available daily and long term assignments, leaving the rest of us with little or no work.

OSSTF officials show little concern about this disparity, about this crisis. They continue to collect dues. Does it matter to them who the dues-payers are? In fact, this disparity may help the bureaucrats complete the purge. It may help them to dissolve our unit, with or without a future rigged vote.

Undemocratic and pro-management practices in OSSTF are not limited to the mistreatment of the Toronto Substitute Teachers. As in any living body, the cancer spreads. Either it is stopped and removed, or it kills the whole organism.

Rank and file substitute teachers are fighting back. We formed the Toronto Substitute Teachers' Action Caucus. We take direct political action, picketing head office and OSSTF conferences, leafleting teachers, publishing bulletins and newsletters, maintaining a telephone help line, lobbying the Minister of Education, taking legal action at many levels, and informing the entire labour movement about the justice of our cause.

We are proud to join hotel workers, CUPE, SEIU, CUPW, PSAC and CAW members, OCAP and others in initiating the Workers' Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition. This is the way forward. Our time is coming. 

"Give up" is a phrase not found in our vocabulary. We will fight until we restore union democracy, until we regain the job security, the decent pay and conditions we had. We recognize this is a fight for a change of direction, not only in OSSTF, but across the labour movement. We understand the forces arrayed against us locally and globally. 

But we also know that we are part of the working class. We know that working people produce all the goods and services, and that we are the overwhelming majority. We just have to get the bosses and their tools off our backs. 

Finally, we realize that we have no choice but to wage this struggle. For us, it's a matter of survival. Together, in democratic and militant unity, we shall overcome. Together, we will do it sooner, rather than later.

Please also visit our legal dispute page

Contact Us: Hotline: 416 - 588 - 9090 | email: Substitute Teachers' Action Caucus