BY GABRIEL CHARBIN
This column is written and edited by the Young Socialists (YS), an international organization of young workers, students, and other youth fighting for socialism. For more information about the YS write to: Young Socialists, 3284 23rd St., San Francisco, California, 94110. Tel: (415) 824-1429. E-MAIL: 105162.605@COMPUSERVE.COM
TORONTO - The 14,400 support staff workers in Toronto schools, organized by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4400, began a strike February 27. The strikers are janitors, secretaries, educational assistants, and instructors. About 75 percent are women.
The unionists are fighting the effects of the $300 million (Can$1=US$0.65) cut the Ontario provincial government is attempting to implement in the education system by attacking job security, working conditions, wages, and benefits.
On the morning of March 8, CUPE targeted 20 high schools and set up mass pickets of hundreds of strikers from neighboring schools, aiming to close down or severely hamper school operations that day.
At Harbord Collegiate Institute, hundreds joined the mass picket, including dozens of students. Harbord's teachers and many students stood across the street from the picket line. At 10:42 a.m., two hours after class was supposed to have begun, Frederick Kuehn, a Harbord teacher, picked up the bull horn and announced, "We're going home." Loud cheers and applause greeted his declaration of solidarity, as teachers dispersed. Five schools were closed by pickets that day.
Students had already staged two walkouts at Harbord the previous week. On March 3, some 300 students walked out of school at 9:15 a.m. to join pickets and marched to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), where they rallied for an hour. The next day, 100 Harbord students walked out.
Students explained school conditions are unsanitary, with paper and other garbage littering the halls, toilets flooded, and a bad smell hanging over everything. The School Board persists in organizing daily health inspections and declaring schools fit to operate. Twenty-one schools have been officially closed during the strike because they are heated by old boilers, which require operation by the stationary engineers on strike.
Ellen Sunter, a striking educational assistant, was at the mass picket at West Toronto Collegiate Institute on March 8. She said teachers had been joining the picket lines before work and at recess, bringing coffee and donuts. "Then they asked us whether we were getting sick of junk food and promised to bring sandwiches instead."
Some 126,000 Ontario teachers walked the picket lines for two weeks in the fall of 1997 in protest against education cuts.
As Sunter spoke, Toronto bus drivers and car passengers honked their horns in support. After 12 years, Sunter earns CAN$17 per hour, but still makes under $23,000 a year because of a short six-hour workday and a layoff every summer.
Support is expressed in many different ways. Teachers from at least one of the schools that have been officially closed during the strike, Oakwood Collegiate, drive a daily morning car convoy to the picket lines at schools that are operating. On March 5 Harbord's principal and vice principals arrived in the morning to find the door needed to access the entire school was glued shut. When the Toronto District School Board locksmith arrived, he refused to cross the picket line.
During International Women's Day March 6, CUPE strikers who are women were given a large standing ovation, and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation called a support rally outside the downtown Board of Education offices on March 10.
Gabriel Charbin is a student at Harbord Collegiate Institute.
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