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Cover of Class Action: How Ontario’s Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force

Class Action: How Ontario’s Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force

By Andy Hanson. Between the Lines, 2021. 255 pages, $25.95
Dr. Rashmee Karnad-Jani

Proactively developing a deep understanding of labour movements paves the way to building a well-informed workforce that, in times of labour struggle, can participate robustly in collective action to protect publicly funded education. Class Action traces the trajectory of the teachers’ labour movement in Ontario and juxtaposes these developments with the emergence of neoliberalism in 1970s Canada. Although Hanson discusses neoliberalism in Canada’s political climate to set the context for labour movements, unlike many authors who take up this topic from the political economy standpoint, he takes it up “from a labour feminist lens, asking the questions about who does the work, who has the power and who benefits” and then tries to locate the contradictions. Most importantly, Hanson asserts that social class is a key factor in union activity. Whether you are an educator involved in ETFO’s political action, a labour relations student or a parent/guardian of Ontario students actively involved in educational advocacy, Class Action invites you to consider the ways in which educational reform impacts the working conditions of educators in the publicly-funded system. Hanson invites readers to notice that ETFO’s steady progress towards becoming a key political force in Ontario is a response to the neoliberal policies that continue to impact the working conditions of educators through cuts-based educational reforms in the province.

Hanson describes the role of the Ontario College of Teachers as an arm of the government. The Harris government’s creation of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) to manage the standardized testing regime and publish the results is presented as a means by which the provincial government attempts to control the education agenda.

Hanson shows how educators in Ontario became a major force to resist neo-liberal or populist governments in the province. He describes conditions inside and outside the unions that occurred before teachers engaged in labour activism. He brings to light the impact of feminism in the mid- to late-twentieth century, which as a motivator for the women’s union caused a reactionary response from the men’s unions dampening the militancy of both. Hanson highlights how teachers took up the narrow view of professionalism imposed by Egerton Ryerson.

Class Action is based on the records of the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) and the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation (OPSTF) augmented by details from the archives of various newspapers and government websites. Hanson’s work invites readers to develop a deeper understanding of the history of the labour movement in Ontario in relation to ETFO’s current presence in the policy arena. It will also help early career teachers participate in more robust ways in their union and perhaps encourage them to take on leadership roles in their schools, ETFO locals and at the provincial level.

When I considered what is present and what is missing or marginalized, some key gaps in the book emerged. First, the writer’s account is based on texts that documented the trajectories of the unions and, in some cases, ignored members of the FWTAO. This leaves me and perhaps other readers with questions about who the members of the FWTAO were, what dreams they had for their collective action and what they experienced when the two former federations became one. My other concern is that Class Action does not present an in-depth view of the standpoints of othered members. Had the author considered including the views of people who have served under the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario through focus groups or narrative inquiry, the resultant product would have added depth to developing a critical understanding of the evolution of ETFO and that it has come at the cost of the solidarities envisioned by Federation of Women Teachers. These accounts would have allowed for a comparison of a time before and after the amalgamation and would have shed light on what was lost for members who previously had a space to speak of issues that mattered to them. Women and men alike are now members of a race and gender-neutral union where the notion of unity is upheld more than the diversity – including the lived experiences of members.

Hanson primarily addresses social class. In actuality, the discriminatory impact of race, gender, sexual orientation, linguistic fluencies and accent privilege are experienced within the society in which worker unions operate. Lived experiences of workers pushed to the margins are being shared quite clearly and vocally nowadays. As social class does not operate distinctly or separately from gender and “race” (which though dismissed as a social construct, greatly impacts many of us), I invite readers to extend Hanson’s work beyond this text and intentionally notice and address critical interlocked issues whenever they arise in our professional and labour movement spaces.

Dr. Rashmee Karnad-Jani is a member of the York Region Teacher Local.