On Thursday, November 14th, Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario announced that starting on November 26th, the 83,000 members of the ETFO will officially enter into a work-to-rule strike action.
According to reports, the job action is designed to “turn up the heat” on the negotiations that are currently taking place between the Doug Ford dominated provincial government and its teachers. It would seem that the 55,000 members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation will not be far behind in joining their colleagues. That organization moved into a legal strike position just this past week. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association already has an exceptionally strong strike mandate, (just north of 97 percent) but is not currently in a legal strike position. At least not yet anyway. Regardless, it seems that we are heading to yet another headline-grabbing show down between a provincial government and its teachers.
What is so striking about this situation for me is the similarities between this tussle and our own government-versus-teachers fiasco from a few years back. Certainly, when listening to the complaints of Ontario teachers about how their government is handling this situation, it feels like deja vu all over again. As recently as November 18th, English Catholic Teachers Association president Liz Stuart was pulling no punches when describing how teachers were being treated. In a statement reported by Global News, Stuart accused the government of trying to derail the bargaining process from the outset by making comments in the media that hindered bargaining, introducing legislation that violated collective bargaining rights, and playing games to “muddy the issues and deflect blame”. I might as easily be reading the comments of two years ago from teachers, (or even two months ago from the crown prosecutors for that matter, but I digress).
For their part, the government, with somewhat haunting familiarity, is trying to frame themselves as the good guys. At a recent press conference, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce appeared behind a podium emblazoned with the slogan “For the Students”, and spoke about how his government was remaining “mission focused” on keeping kids in classrooms. In a recent interview in the Toronto Sun, Lecce claimed that he was disappointed that the teachers were taking such a dim view of how things had played out. He made a point of specifically mentioning their proposal for a larger raise than the 1% legislated just a few months ago by his government. (For the record, teachers are looking for about 2%). As a summary of the impending job action, Lecce said “…it is disheartening…The singular victim of this escalation is our kids.”
Well, I suppose the minister is right on that last count, at least. The kids are the victims here. But let’s be serious. If the kids were really the focus for this government, or any government for that matter, the conversation would not be about increasing class size or undervaluing teachers. It would be about how to best empower them to do good things within their schools, how to inspire creativity and innovation within the classroom, and how to ensure that our country’s best and brightest young people are drawn to the profession.
That last part is of particular note. Although Minister Lecce may claim with a straight face that teachers walking the picket line is going to harm kids, he, like so many of his kind these days, is missing the point. The damage done to students by the missing a few extra curricular events because of a work-to-rule campaign, or a few days of school because of a work stoppage is certainly worth noting. But that damage absolutely pales by any measure of comparison to the damage wrought upon students by creating conditions under which teachers are forced to take job action in the first place.
For me, that is always the major rub when governments claim that they, not the the teachers, have the best interest of the kids in mind. Over the past few years, in province after province, government after government has shown that they are willing to go to war with teachers instead of allowing the collective bargaining process to unfold. They seem more than happy to place the achievement of short term political gains over the potential long term damage done to the work force. And whether it be across provincial boundaries or across party lines, the message is the same. If we are talking about deficits in Nova Scotia, the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ontario, or the impact of OPEC policy on Alberta’s economy, the rallying cry of “We can’t afford to continue to treat teachers this well!” echoes almost in unison.
The question we should really be asking ourselves, not just provincially, but nationally, is if we can afford to treat them this poorly.
Governments need to be fiscally responsible. They need to pave roads and build hospitals and provide affordable housing, all with taxpayers dollars. But at the end of the day, the very foundation of a functioning, healthy, democratic Canada is found in its public school system. The very foundation of a functioning, healthy, innovative public school system is found in its workforce. It is found in its custodians, it is found in its librarians. It is found in its principals and in its support staff. And, of course, it is found in its teachers.
The more we allow short sighted, politically motivated rhetoric to erode that foundation, the closer we come to a complete collapse.
When it comes to teaching, provincial governments are by far the largest source of employment. Our country will be in a sorry state indeed should we reach a point where no one wants to work for them.