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Due South: Attacks on American Unions and Public Education

Vivian McCaffrey

Cautionary Tale for Ontario

A severe budget crisis and a president bent on turning public education on its head have given Republican-led states in the United States a convenient excuse to attack union rights, public education, and teachers. As we head toward the Ontario election on October 6, we face the prospect that a right-wing government here will find these policies attractive.

Between 1995 and 2003 the Ontario Conservative government led by Mike Harris and his successor Ernie Eves introduced many regressive policies borrowed from the U.S. Republican Party playbook. These included teacher testing, standardized student testing, and expanded private school funding. U.S.-based policies also informed the Harris government’s attack on social assistance recipients and unions.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 did not result in a new direction for federal education policy – quite the contrary. Under the direction of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the federal government has become more interventionist and is using its $4.3 billion in funding for education to leverage support for its reforms. To qualify for federal support, state governments must agree to evaluate teachers according to student test scores, establish merit pay based on standardized test scores, and open the way to more charter schools. The administration is also championing policies that undermine teacher collective agreements.

The high-profile documentary Waiting for Superman popularizes the Obama administration’s education policy. The film trumpets the merits of charter schools and blames teachers and their unions for low student achievement in underfunded public schools in impoverished neighbourhoods.


In the context of budgetary deficits, teacher layoffs are occurring across the United States. Republican governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Ohio, Nevada, and New Jersey have all backed legislation targeting teacher tenure and seniority. For example, new Idaho laws allow school districts to unilaterally reduce salaries and benefits; they forbid the employer from considering seniority in layoff decisions.
Education Secretary Duncan lent his support, saying that “layoffs based only on seniority don’t help kids.”

Florida passed legislation replacing salary grids based on experience with merit pay linked to student test scores. Beginning in July 2011, Florida will hire teachers only on one-year contracts. Annual contract renewal will depend on teachers not receiving two consecutive “unsatisfactory” or three consecutive “needs improvement” evaluations. Half of the evaluation score will be linked to student test results. The Indiana state legislature is dealing with laws giving salary increases only to those teachers who receive “effective” or “highly effective” ratings on their evaluations and mandating that experience can count for only 33 percent of salary increases.

American lawmakers are touting merit pay as a tool to support improved student outcomes, but clearly care more about slashing expenditures. The Ohio Office of Collective Bargaining estimated that replacing statutory grid increases with merit pay would save that state $75 million and its local governments $393 million annually.



Encouraged by federal policy, states are moving forward with measures to promote the expansion of charter schools and increase access to private education. These initiatives are also designed to undermine unions and public education. Recently, for example, the Indiana House of Representatives voted to establish the largest voucher program in the country, providing low and middle-income families with funding so their children can attend private schools. A separate bill proposes that only half of the teachers hired in state charter schools would have to be licensed.



Right-wing state governments are using the pretext of budgetary pressures to implement full-out attacks on basic union rights. Wisconsin is the most extreme example to date. It has adopted measures to limit public sector bargaining to compensation only and salary increases to the rate of inflation. The new law also ends the automatic union dues check off and requires public sector unions to conduct annual votes to confirm their membership. Ohio has also limited the scope of bargaining and similar bills are making their way through the state legislatures of Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Tennessee.

Powerful corporate interests are funding at least some of these attacks. The New York Times is one of several media outlets that has reported that the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of Koch Industries, an energy and consumer products conglomerate, contributed heavily to the election campaign of the governor of Wisconsin and were working behind the scenes to provoke an attack on unions.1


Mass union protests and petition campaigns are greeting the various Republican-led attacks on unions. Unions across North America are sending messages of solidarity. In Wisconsin there is a legal challenge to the anti-union legislation. In states where the Senate is not dominated by Republicans or where there is a Democratic governor, bills not yet enacted are being amended or may be vetoed. Some observers suggest that the right-wing attack will ultimately strengthen and revitalize the union movement. However, for the present, the overall trend is clear: a concerted right-wing campaign against union rights. Based on Ontario's experience with the former Conservative government, it could take years for the U.S. union movement to regain lost ground.


Clearly it matters which party forms the next provincial government. The leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party has dismissed the suggestion that a future PC government would adopt the budget-cutting measures of Wisconsin. He has, however, consistently pressed the Liberal government to scale back on public sector spending and target public sector salaries. He has also advocated changing Ontario's labour arbitration system, which is currently designed to ensure fairness when contract negotiations reach an impasse.

We have yet to see the election platforms of Ontario's political parties, but ETFO members should heed the turmoil south of the border when considering how to vote and ponder the extent to which they can make a difference in the upcoming provincial election.

When the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris took power in 1995, they began an assault on teachers and on public education that lasted for the next eight years. Teachers were painted as lazy and unprofessional. This was the spirit in which the Harris government

  • established the EQAO and province-wide testing
  • established the Ontario College of Teachers
  • mandated teacher recertification and a qualifying test for new teachers
  • threatened to mandate extracurricular activities (and did mandate them at the secondary level)

Education funding was cut by approximately $2 billion. This meant that

  • teachers, EAs, and professional support staff lost their jobs
  • music, physical education, guidance, library, and special education programs were decimated
  • funding for junior kindergarten was cut in half and offering it was made optional for boards
  • a new elementary curriculum was introduced without the necessary resources and teacher in-service

The government also undermined local governance, creating huge district school boards and removing their ability to raise taxes. School board employees and their spouses were forbidden to run for trustee positions.

​To support private schools, tax credits for private school tuition were introduced.

1 Eric Lipton. "Billionaire Brothers' Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute" The New York Times, February 21, 2011. Available at www.nytimes.comj2011/02/22jusj22koch.html.
Andrew Stern: "Analysis: Koch brothers a force in anti-union effort" Reuters, Feb 26, 2011. Available at www.reuter.s.comj article/2011/02/26/ us-usa wisconsin-koch-idUSTRE71P28W20110226
See Also, Jane Mayer. "Covert Operations. The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama." The New Yorker, August 30, 2010. Available at www.newyorker.comjreporting/2010/08/30/100830/aJact_mayer#ixzz1JPzV1PMx