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CUPE mass pickets show Tories can be beaten

MARCH 15, 1999 – When striking educational support staff in Toronto turned to mass pickets last week, they unleashed a power that can stop the Tory cuts.

Two weeks into their strike against the Toronto Board of Education, the 14,000 striking members of CUPE local 4400 switched from pickets scattered across the more than 300 schools in the district, to concentrated mass pickets of hundreds at selected high schools.[1]

From Harbord Collegiate and West Toronto Collegiate in the west end, to Riverdale and East York in the east, hundreds and hundreds of pickets and supporters, on Monday and Tuesday of last week, effectively shut down the biggest high schools in the city. [2]

The mass pickets gave confidence to teachers who didn’t want to cross the picket lines. More and more teachers were walking the lines in solidarity with their striking sisters and brothers as the week went on.

The mass pickets gave confidence to students. A high school student organization, the Independent Student Organization of Toronto, called a mass walkout of classes on Tuesday. Several hundred students demonstrated in the downtown core, occupying the intersection of University and College for half an hour.[3]

The mass pickets gave confidence to strikers at schools where there were no mass pickets.

And the mass pickets gave confidence to parents who support the strike. The media had to work overtime to find anti-strike parents.

The mass strikes had transformed the confrontation into the beginnings of a new focus for all the pent-up rage against the Tory cuts.

On Friday last week, a tentative agreement was reached between the union and the school board. We will not know details of it until it is voted on at the end of this week.

But it looks like the mass pickets and solidarity have forced the school board to back down on several key items.

  • There are no concessions in the contract.
  • In North York, where a lot of custodial work has been contracted out for several years, the union won the phasing out of these contracted out positions, and their conversion to unionized positions.
  • There will be no layoffs for the life of the two-year contract[4] (the union had been facing up to 4,000 layoffs).

But there is no room for complacency. The two-year, no layoff guarantee is not as big a victory as it sounds.

The Tories funding formula, which will cut something like $170-million from the Toronto system, has been “topped-up” for the next two years. There is no guarantee as to what will happen in two years when the top-up money disappears.

Gail Nyberg, school board president, says she will demand that the Tories amend that formula and deliver more money. CUPE president, John Weatherup says he will back her in this fight.[5]

The foundation for any anti-Tory movement was there to be seen on the picket lines –students, teachers and working class parents supporting the strike. The two-week battle by the educational support staff has given confidence to all who oppose the Tory agenda.

© 1999 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Vanessa Lu and Tanya Talaga, “We’ll Close 20 More Toronto High Schools, Union Chief Vows,” Toronto Star, March 6, 1999, sec. News.

[2] Lila Sarick, “School Board Says Offer to CUPE Provided Job Security,” The Globe and Mail, March 10, 1999, sec. Toronto News; Tanya Talaga and Vanessa Lu, “School Strike: Talks Collapse,” Toronto Star, March 9, 1999, sec. NEWS.

[3] Vanessa Lu, Joel Ruimy, and Tanya Talaga, “School Talks Stalled, Harris May Step In,” Toronto Star, March 10, 1999, sec. News.

[4] Estanislao Oziewicz, “Deal Reached to End Toronto’s School Strike,” The Globe and Mail, March 13, 1999, sec. Toronto News.

[5] Ibid.

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