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College Quarterly
Summer 1994 - Volume 1 Number 4
Don't Call Me Servant: Government Work and Unions in Ontario 1911-1984
Wayne Roberts
Toronto: Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 1994
Reviewed by Ralph V. Barrett

In this book, Wayne Roberts documents the transition of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union-the collective bargaining agent for, among others, CAAT academic and support staff-from the paternalistic, patriarchal fellowship of the early 1900s to the exemplar of social unionism in the 1970s and '80s, when OPSEU, using local community coalitions, fought valiantly against government cutbacks in social services.

The development of trade union consciousness and practice was not easy. It depended less upon leftist ideology than upon Local Union stewards' painstaking attention to the details of daily work routines that became the focal point of the Ontario government's policy of scientifically managing labour costs through tight supervision and control. The neo-Edwardian “family” atmosphere of early government departments was systematically undercut by bureaucratic management and resulted, by the 1960s, in the promotion of unionism and collective bargaining as a response to the declining working conditions of government employees.

Wayne Roberts is an admirable choice to recount this history. A respected labour historian, a former Executive Assistant to Jim Clancy, President of OPSEU (1984-1988), and currently the Queen's Park columnist for Toronto's alternative weekly newspaper, NOW, he shows the difficulties in creating a trade union out of a professional association with a special and somewhat privileged relationship to government. It is to OPSEU's credit that it has published this quasi-official history, for Roberts pulls few punches and is often critical of the Union, its policies and its leaders over the 73 years under review.

One problem the union faced was the need to disabuse civil servants of their apolitical self-image; another was to transform itself by building democratic structures within what was then the Civil Service Association of Ontario. Building internal democracy wasn't pretty, and it finally resulted in direct confrontations between union militants and “Jake” Norman, CSAO's last “general manager”. The volatile politics of the late 60s and early 70s did produce a vibrant and generally democratic organization, eventually a “union” by name and by nature, but doing so meant both an internal conflict and inevitable clashes with the provincial government.

Campaigns to give full collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike to public servants, grew and the government responded with increasing threats to job security and working conditions. OPSEU replied by developing a strategy of social unionism, the building of coalitions with community groups which would be adversely affected by severe cuts in public spending. In Hamilton, for example, an OPSEU local held public meetings that produced a petition with 83,000 signatures that successfully kept Chedoke Hospital open. Rank and file women activists also organized around issues such as child care, pay equity, maternity leave, equal opportunity and sexual harassment, thus pushing OPSEU into ever more progressive policies, often ahead of other unions. As Roberts points out, though, social unionism, collective bargaining and the daily necessity of monitoring contracts requires constant vigilance and struggle. This is the clear message of his history of OPSEU.

Now, most sectors of the union have won the right to strike and OPSEU may be poised to enter a new era of militancy. With a firm command of the history of their union and of CAAT labour relations, OPSEU members will be in a better position to assess future strategies; moreover, all college employees will find Roberts' analysis of the 1984 CAAT Academic strike revealing. As he says: “after more than a decade's embittered bargaining over traditional union issues, the strike was a high-water point for the new style of social unionism.” CAAT faculty had had the right to strike throughout this period of acrimonious bargaining with colleges so concerned with “management rights” that they provided not just a recipe “for hard bargaining, but for ideological warfare Disappointment and disgust,” intones Roberts, “gave bargaining a bitter edge that spilled over into a sense of class war.”

This in marked contrast to the events of 1979 (when union militants in the colleges “suffered a major setback when teachers voted both ‘No’ to accepting management’s offer, and ‘No’ to the bargaining team's request for a strike mandate”) and 1981 (when, in a pathetic attempt to avoid strike action, teachers took their bargaining dispute to arbitration and were embarrassed when the arbitrator-after awarding a disappointing settlement-affirmed that people with the right to strike cannot expect arbitrators to give them what they are unwilling to strike to achieve). But, why were college teachers so timid?

Roberts notes that many “college teachers thought OPSEU did a lousy job of understanding, representing and servicing them” and they were “unhappy over their lack of professional rights to define the quality of education.” Some university-bound academics and other concerned teachers wanted to set up an independent arena for professional concerns and have the union “fund a survey on teaching hours, preparation time and professional development, for the sake of a province-wide campaign to organize around common teaching problems.” According to Roberts, OPSEU President Sean O'Flynn (himself a former teacher at Niagara College) “made a mockery of the request.”Many of us remember O'Flynn's willingness to engage in “reality therapy” by encouraging confrontation with a management that celebrated the CAATs enthusiasm, from the outset, for the “industrial model” of labour relations. At a meeting of Local Union representatives in the early 1980s, O'Flynn, after outlining management's position on teaching hours, wages and benefits, told the delegates that if they wanted to maintain existing working conditions, never mind improve them: “You will have to not just threaten strike action; you will actually have to go on strike!”

On October 17, 1984, CAAT faculty began a three and a half week strike that was only ended by government back-to-work legislation. That strike was pivotal for it alone “won a workload formula that met teachers' demands around quality education.” So, far from making a mockery out of the request of the quality of education group, O'Flynn and other militants had correctly pointed out that, under then-existing circumstances, professional networking, public forums and academic focus groups were no substitute for a strike mandate and strike action as the only realistic methods for budging management off its policy of getting more for less.

Ten years have now passed and Bob Rae's “social contract” has reproduced the pressure for cutbacks that threaten to roll back the gains of the 1984 strike. We can only hope that anyone urging orgies of professional angst will be “mocked” again, but now the struggle to maintain quality education and, of necessity, decent working conditions may be even more difficult. Roberts' interpretation of CAAT teachers in 1984 invites a more sophisticated analysis to match the more complex realities of the mid-1990s; however, passive professionalism, which sees quality education, curricula and professional development as separate from union issues still promotes an artificial distinction between the teacher as a selfless academic and as an educational worker struggling for autonomy in the workplace. It disarms any practical defense against the injunction to “do more with less&qrdquouot; and obscures the reality that not only are the goals of unionism and professionalism not incompatible, they are interdependent.

Anyone thinking otherwise would do well to ponder a recent Ontario arbitration board ruling which was “compelled to find that a professor does not have the final authority with respect to the selection of teaching materials, the determination of areas of studies, the designation of methods of evaluation or the choice of mechanisms of delivery of a course of study. The final authority in regard to these matters rests with the management of the college.”

So, until language is negotiated into the Collective Agreement that addresses academic freedom, classroom autonomy and so on, notions such as quality education and professionalism have absolutely no legal status in Ontario's colleges. As Roberts' book suggests, a strong union of teaching professionals may remain the best defense of educational quality in the years ahead.

Ralph Barrett has taught Sociology and Canadian Studies at Seneca College since 1970. He is also an OPSEU Local 560 Steward.