On October 27, 1997, teachers and support staff working in Ontario’s publicly funded elementary and secondary schools walked out of their worksites to protest pending legislation that would have been devastating to the province’s education system. Bill 160, The Education Quality Improvement Act, introduced by the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Mike Harris, proposed a series of sweeping changes that would have significantly increased the workloads of education workers and created adverse learning conditions for students. The legislation would also have centralized virtually all decision-making power over publicly funded education with the Ministry of Education through increased regulatory authority.
“This was a proud moment for our union,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof. “We were faced with a government determined to torpedo years of progress and essentially dismantle a superb education system that we had helped to build. But our members, together with other education workers, rose to the challenge in an unprecedented display of solidarity against a government bent on undermining the very foundations of public education.”
“As a relatively young teacher, walking those picket lines outside my school in Ajax, Ontario, I gained a profound understanding of, and lasting pride in, OSSTF/FEESO’s role in defending this vital public institution,” said Bischof.
The protest, which to this day remains the largest job action ever undertaken by education workers in North America, lasted for two weeks. Bill 160 was eventually passed but the Harris government backed away from some of the most contentious elements of the legislation.
“The 1997 protest over Bill 160 reminded us of the true meaning and value of solidarity and collective action,” continued Bischof. “Since that time, other governments have confronted us and have discovered that we are more than willing to defend both our rights and the integrity of public education.”
“Our challenge now is to ensure that the current generation of education workers understands the importance of this anniversary and what it symbolizes. OSSTF/FEESO members must always remain vigilant and prepared to respond whenever our working conditions, the learning conditions of our students, or the values inherent in a strong public education system come under attack,” concluded Bischof.