hile Alma College burned, thousands of locals looked on in stunned silence. It was the end of the 2008 school year, and Alma College, St. Thomas’ venerable Victorian gothic building, was in flames, set ablaze by two high school boys. It had not operated as a school since 1988, yet even after all those years of neglect—windows long missing, grounds overgrown, the wrecking ball waiting in the wings—there was no denying its awesome presence. The architecture recalled another era, a bold statement born of the optimism of a young railway city in a young country in 1881—the height of the railway age. The ashes cooled and just days later the brick shell was pulled down, leaving a gap in the skyline and in the city’s sense of itself. However, few realize its contribution to a short but significant chapter in the history of the OSSTF/FEESO.
Those who taught at this private girls’ boarding school over the years have since shared memories of their time at Alma. When a teacher entered the classroom, the students, (all dressed in uniform), stood up, fell silent, and waited for the teacher to tell them to be seated and to begin the lesson. In 1988, there were 14 teachers (only two of whom were male) and the student body of 105 was a mix of foreign and Canadian girls. More than 100 years of history and gifts yielded a priceless collection of international dolls, grand pianos and a stuffed bird collection from the Victoria era. This collection was displayed in Darwinian-type display cases and also included a long-extinct passenger pigeon. Magnificent grounds boasted a stone amphitheatre nestled among Carolinian hardwoods, and gardens tended by a permanent groundskeeper. Picture Dead Poets’ Society meets Hogwarts. Everyone knew about the school’s ghost, Angela, and only the bravest souls dared enter Ivory Tower.
Sadly, however, like the building itself, there were anachronisms in labour practices. One teacher recalls going into the principal’s office each year, alone, to negotiate her salary. Later, and without consultation, the Board developed a grid of sorts that would often be frozen. The preferred method of communication was to invite teachers to a dinner (which one staff member nicknamed “the last supper”) at a local United Church where they were informed that grid movement was impossible—a microcosmic foreshadowing of the NDP’s Social Contract, half a decade later. By 1987, teachers at Alma were earning about half that of local public high school teachers, they were again frozen on the paltry grid, they were assigned an extra course and part-time teachers were being scheduled sporadically throughout the day. Benefits remained the same: none. There was no seniority list.
There was no just cause clause either. Staff could be fired with two weeks’ notice. A family studies teacher was simply let go after 30 years, a drama teacher after 40 years. When a staff delegation was rebuffed by the administration, Alma teachers turned to the OSSTF/FEESO, through what was then District 35, Elgin, for help. History was made when the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) approved the first private school bargaining unit of OSSTF/FEESO in 1987. The Alma Board was horrified. The Association for Private Schools suddenly took a keen interest.
On January 23, 1988, Alma teachers voted for “provincial takeover” that enabled OSSTF/FEESO provincial negotiators to step in. The writing was on the wall. On February 15, the first strike by members of a private school in Ontario was under way—the bold and perhaps naïve slogan for the Alma strikers: “The Edge of the Wedge.” Ontario private schools lined up with the Alma Board, and one of Ontario’s most powerful unions, OSSTF/FEESO, set up its strike office in St. Thomas, complete with a phone, a fridge, a fax machine and a photocopier.
Twenty years later, the man who had been Alma’s Bargaining Unit President in 1988, and who is now retired from a long teaching career, is still “amazed it was such a hornet’s nest” and still expresses deep gratitude for the support his tiny bargaining unit received from the union.
The strike dragged on. On March 21, the Alma Board brought in scab workers. There was violence on the picket line. An Etobicoke teacher supporter ended up on the hood of a car that day, as did the Provincial President-elect. One Alma teacher was slightly injured days later when a car driven by a scab teacher accelerated through the line, carrying him 13 metres and then hurling him to the gravel, where he landed perilously close to a parked car. The Alma teacher would later win damages in court, thanks to legal representation provided by OSSTF/FEESO, a service not provided to the replacement worker by his employer.
There were some peculiar ironies. One scab turned out to be an Ontario Teachers’ Federation member on a leave of absence. A retired United Church minister (from the institution that appointed the Board, and which as early as 1942 declared its support for Canadian workers and collective bargaining) regularly crossed the picket line to teach religion. One Alma Board member, a member of OSSTF/FEESO with all its rights and privileges, was actually teaching in the public system while fellow members took a beating in the press and on the line. Perhaps the greatest irony is that OSSTF/FEESO had ultimately hoped to work with the Board to see the College thrive with a unionized staff, even with a modest contract, “The Edge of the Wedge.” It is an irony because rather than work with OSSTF/FEESO, the Alma Board refused to bargain at all and ultimately severed its ties with the United Church also, rather than follow the Church’s policy of respecting workers’ rights.
Three months and one day after it began, the strike ended. The OLRB ruled the Alma Board was guilty of unfair labour practices, awarded a first contract and turned over outstanding issues to binding arbitration. A “We Won” sign was posted in the window of the strike office. Four teachers were laid off in keeping with the new seniority list. The rest were subjected to an outdoor reception at which a small number of handpicked student protesters derided returning teachers before invited media guests. Administration cancelled classes for the rest of the year, relegating teachers to “tutorial help” in empty classrooms. The 75 remaining students were told by the Board they would not lose credits. During the final assembly, the Alma teachers seated in the front row, were informed, “Your services are no longer required. The school is closing.”
It is unclear whether the Board thought it might reopen the school at a future date, without the union. The Alma Bargaining Unit remained on the minutes of District 35 (Elgin) until amalgamation in 1998. Alma College itself, unable to be retrofitted sufficiently to meet the fire and building codes required to reopen, never did. One Alma teacher said recently that the Alma fire of 2008 was terrible, of course, but “As far as I’m concerned, the school died 20 years ago. The fire is an epilogue, not a conclusion.”
Alma teachers who wanted to continue teaching quickly found positions in other schools (in many cases, at double their previous salary) and began working under what many of their new colleagues sometimes take for granted: a contract. A just cause clause alone is worth its weight in platinum. Every comma, “shall,” “will,” number, grid, clause and protection has been hard won since 1919, and we might well need determination again if contracts are to be maintained. We should do well to remember Alma for what she was, what she was not, and what she never will be.