Tracing Ontario teachers’ long struggle for pay equity

Photo by Meg Boulden on Unsplash

We're publishing an excerpt here from Class Action: How Ontario's Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force, by Andy Hanson, in anticipation of the online book launch next Thursday, October 14th, at 7 pm ET. Class Action is the first book independently documenting how the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) eventually came into being in 1998. To learn more, tune into the online launch event (register here) and make sure to pick up a copy of the book.

Class Action

How Ontario’s Elementary Teachers Became a Political Force

By Andy Hanson


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The historical salary differential in elementary teaching was a fundamental issue that divided the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (FWTAO) and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation Public School Men Teachers’ Federation (OPSMTF), the two unions which merged in 1998 to become the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).*

In 1946, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation Board of Governors, consisting of representatives from all five teachers’ unions, had proposed a resolution supporting “equal opportunity and equal pay for equal qualifications and responsibilities between men and women.” But well into the 1950s, men teachers were content with their better salaries. In 1954, Tom Alcorn, the retiring OPSMTF president, reflected on the ambiguity within the union regarding one salary schedule. “It has become quite common now for the two Federations to negotiate jointly . . . when arranging a salary set-up with a board of trustees.  Many OPSMTF members still do not agree with this policy and feel there should be a differential based on sex.”

In October 1955, the FWTAO and the OPSMTF established a joint committee on salaries. By the summer of 1957 the FWTAO executive reported “that OPSMTF have pretty well closed all doors on active cooperation on salary policy with FWTAO, but we felt that we could put in a request for a meeting and see what happens.” Surprisingly, a joint meeting held that November did produce a draft for a single salary policy for collective bargaining.

That raised the ire of men teachers who were against one salary grid. One OPSMTF member, W.J. Redford, stated, “The women want the men to fight their battles and to have a ‘me too’ attitude re salaries . . . men teachers should be in a position to ‘go it alone’ . . . I am willing to cooperate with the women but not by one salary policy.” At the time, a woman in the same position with the same qualifications and seniority in the same board would earn less than half of what a man was paid. The February 1962 OPSMTF newsletter reported that a male teacher who had finished high school had an average salary of $4,638, while the average for a woman teacher with the same education was $2,016.

Despite the reactionary rhetoric of some of the OPSMTF members, the 1957 decision of the two unions to negotiate one salary schedule would hold firm. It would bind the two unions together for the purposes of collective bargaining for the next four decades. 

In 1969, the FWTAO, OPSMTF, OECTA, and AEFO established the Qualifications Evaluation Council (later, the Qualifications Evaluation Council of Ontario, known as QECO) to develop standards for harmonizing teachers’ salaries and their qualifications. It was an arms-length body of representatives from the four unions with responsibility “to establish and review policies on which an evaluation program should be based.” When the Department of Education proposed introducing a single Ontario School Teachers’ Certificate, the unions met with the Ontario School Trustees’ Council and the Department to advocate for QECO. By the summer of 1972, the trustees were accepting QECO ranking as the standard for placement of teachers on their salary grids.

The priority QECO gave to formal qualifications made pay equity even more urgent for women teachers who did not hold additional credentials. 

Equal pay for work of equal value was one of the prime objectives of the new feminism penetrating the Canadian consciousness.  As women teachers became more vocal in demanding an equal place in the school system, the men of the OPSMTF intensified their efforts to convince FWTAO members of the need for one union of elementary teachers. At the local level, the men were able to convince some FWTAO locals to amalgamate with them to create one local of men and women.

The FWTAO response to the OPSMTF was equally vigorous. “Co-operation NOT Amalgamation” read the title of a special newsletter being prepared by the FWTAO in January 1970. The reasons for a woman-only union were listed. Five arguments were made that would frame the discourse for the next twenty-eight years.  The first was that the OPSMTF was an organization ruled largely by principals and vice-principals, who did not have the interests of the classroom teacher at heart. 

“The men are oriented toward promotion to administrative positions, and they try to ensure that they will become able principals and vice-principals, and that working conditions in the system will be such that they will be able to run their schools smoothly and competently. . . . On the other hand, women in the school systems, being predominantly classroom teachers, are oriented toward the education of the child, and consequently toward measures which will improve their effectiveness in their day-to-day duties.”

The second point was that women did not have an equal voice in any of the other teachers’ unions where both men and women were members.

“All one has to do is take a look at other teacher organizations where both men and women compose the membership  .  .  .  Women hardly ever are elected to their Executives and it is the exception to employ any to the executive positions on their large male office staffs.” 

The third argument, and one of the strongest, was that women in the FWTAO were given a chance to be leaders. “We need to give women as many opportunities as possible to find out if they are good leaders.” This third point tied directly to a campaign the FWTAO was initiating to train women to assume leadership positions. 

Fourth, women were discriminated against and the men had not made any effort to rectify that situation. “We cannot rely on men to champion the cause of women, despite the fact that many men are both fair and honest in their assessments.” None of the Ontario teachers’ unions had made pay equity a deal breaker during any negotiations. 

The final point challenged women to take charge of their professional lives. 

“We need a strong educational programme to overcome certain preconceptions about women, particularly the prejudices which lead men to see only ‘stereotypes’ and not individuals. But these attitudes aren’t restricted to men by any means. While we need to educate men, we need a programme equally strong to change the attitudes of women to women. Women are naturally conservative, and we need to bring them out of a limited orbit.” 

This point rankled some. Many of those women in the FWTAO who supported the OPSMTF campaign for one union found too patronizing the claim that women needed the guidance and hand-holding of the FWTAO to be equal.

The FWTAO had the resources to support a range of campaigns for women’s rights. The Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada, the most prominent group of feminists in the country, operated almost entirely out of the offices of the FWTAO. Such commitment reflected the willingness of Ontario’s largest teachers’ union to develop alliances with groups that supported women’s equality. As a conduit into every community in the province, the 

FWTAO became important to building capacity within feminist organizations. 

In all but a few instances, the OPSMTF would not align with the negotiating goals of the FWTAO to further the cause of equity. Joint bargaining did not work for the women in matters of gender. Representing only women, the FWTAO chose to bring the class issues it shared with the men to contract negotiations and to advocate for gender issues through its relationship with the state. An early example of the success of the latter was the release of the green paper Equal Opportunity for Women in Ontario: A Plan for Action in 1973.

In seeking to improve conditions for themselves, FWTAO members became actively engaged in the larger feminist movement. Among other initiatives, they approved funding for activities promoting the United Nations International Women’s Year in 1975. And of particular importance to education, the FWTAO argued for the removal of sex bias and sex discrimination in curriculum and textbooks.


*In 1982, the OPSMTF dropped "Men" from its name to become OPSTF, which is the name it held when it merged with the FWTAO to together bcome the ETFO in 1998.

Book Launch: Class Action

Andy Hanson retired from teaching to write labour history. He lives in Toronto with his partner. In the 1997 campaign against Premier Mike Harris, he was a member of the local consolidated committee of five teachers’ unions organizing marches and rallies, co-ordinating picket lines, and communicating with members. After the men’s and women’s elementary teachers amalgamated, he was elected ETFO local vice-president and held that position for twelve years. Hanson received his PhD in Canadian Studies from Trent University in 2013.