What Lies at the Core of the Teacher Labour Mess in Ontario?
In a word it is all about control. I checked my observations recently with a former board psychologist. Really, there are two things going on. The two key words are austerity and control.
First there are the obvious austerity policies of the Kathleen Wynne government. This wrongheaded policy has many negative ramifications. Austerity means slower growth, and reduced government revenues. The Harper Tories as a perfect example just slashed their way into another recession due to a ‘deficit fetish’. Now the BoC is forced to slash interest rates again to try to save the economy from Tory fiscal policy. Austerity slows the economy at a time it needs stimulation. The inability to improve the remuneration of teachers and education workers, after already putting them through years of restraint has worn thin. It is not good enough to just be better than the risible, self-immolating Hudak Tories. Good deeds from 2003-4 are a decade old and do not pay the bills today.
Thousands of teachers are facing retirement and refusing to go because no wage increase means no pension improvement for years. Teachers will take the legacy of this disastrous period into their pensions for the next 25-30 years. This strategy encourages older, pension eligible, higher salary teachers to hang on while younger, eager, lower salary teachers cannot find work - brilliant.
Teachers have already paid through the nose with the virtual dismantling of a sick leave accumulation plan and to no one’s surprise, are now using their sick days as doctors recommend and staying home. This senseless provincial policy has actually increased costs. They have had no raise for years and their thank you note is a provincial position of three more years of zero wage increase.
What is the fiscal alternative for the Wynne Liberals? Tommy Douglas used to say that “deficits are the clearest indication we have than not enough tax was collected.” An increase in corporate tax as recommended by Horwath’s NDP plus a high income surtax, green taxes on gasoline, sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco, surtaxes on vehicles over $60K, houses over $2M, you get the picture. Would you look at that? - The $8B deficit is gone!
In reality if the deficit were wrestled down to $3-4B Moody’s S&P and the other bond rating agencies would lose interest and move on to other less credit worthy jurisdictions. $0.00 deficit is a political target, not an economic target.
We know, of course there are ‘louder voices’ on Bay Street saying don’t even go there but Ontario provincial polls with the NDP in first place (35%) and the Liberals in a deep third (24%) have already prompted Ontario Liberal TV ads four years before the next election. Kathleen is jogging on the back roads again. They are clearly feeling the heat. The deep unpopularity of the Wynne Liberals is beginning to drag down the entire Liberal brand for Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal Party. The three larger federation’s presidents need a sit down with Wynne and promise that all federation money and political efforts 2015-2018 will go to the NDP until the austerity machine is put into reverse.
The public may blame ‘both parties’ – government and the unions, for the chaos but always remember only one of these parties must run in public elections for a new mandate. The public elected THIS Liberal government over the union-baiting Hudak Tories because they believed that Kathleen Wynne stood for labour peace and good relations in the education field. It seems they were wrong and the Liberals are already paying the price. It is not the votes of teachers that defeat unpopular regimes. It is the votes of parents who look at education labour chaos and vote out the party in power as incompetent. People vote against chaos – period.
The Control Issue
When the Mike Harris Tories amalgamated the school boards and gelded them by removing taxation powers, these emasculated boards didn’t know what had hit them. Before 1995, school boards actually had tremendous power. They had the power to set taxation rates which even the senior local governments, the cities or the counties could not touch. All other power flowed from this. They had far more curriculum power before this was boxed in by tight Ministry guidelines and EQAO testing. They had the power to be a model employer in their various communities, now this has evaporated. One of the few remaining powers was what is known as the ‘bully pulpit’, the power to have their voices amplified by their position in the community, often at the expense of parsimonious provincial governments. Even this has been circumscribed by new rules limiting trustees from speaking out, if not in sync with board majorities.
It seemed to take 20 years for it to sink in at the board level that they were now little more than political insulation for the province, causing local outrage at underfunding and school closings to be misdirected to themselves as local trustees and away from MPPs. Parents and local unions have been yelling at the monkey while the provincial organ grinder played the tune.
Boards are frantic to find penny wise, usually pound foolish, ways to balance their budgets and have become obsequious as they kow tow to their provincial masters. It is hard to watch, it is that pathetic.
The boards just don’t have the guts to confront the province any more. The nail that stands up will be hammered down and placed under trusteeship. So they found what they think is a new raison d’etre. The boards have become ‘teacher bashers’. They crave some form disposable income of some type and they desperately want to ‘be the boss of somebody’- they want some authority to raise their own insignificant status. This control freak persona is only an outward manifestation of their weakness and insecurity.
I date the clown car antics of the TDSB farce to the fact that they have become like Jerry Seinfeld, ‘the show about nothing’ as they search for some meaningful role, even as the pawns of the province. They were until recently the ‘official employers’ of their employees the teachers and support staff. With the new tripartite local/central, dogs breakfast style negotiations they have, in reality, lost even that last fig leaf of their dignity to the province. They can still negotiate locally over items that essentially don’t cost any money. This is the ‘kiddies table’ of negotiations. Yes, they are at the ‘big central table’ but they are largely spectators where one side has the money and the other has the troops, they got nuthin’.
The way most contracts are written, using teachers for example, the rights of teachers are itemized in very specific detail in the contract and this is all they really have, subject to outside legislation on labour laws, human rights, health and safety, Ed Act and so on. All other non-delineated rights fall under a reserve clause called “management rights” and this is spelled out early in the contract.
Although trustees have not been up on their hind legs regarding these issues for decades now, all of a sudden, boards want to renegotiate clauses and rights that teachers have enjoyed since the Jurassic Period. They now want control over class sizes that have been basically legislated and they want control over the use of teacher preparation time that boards have not had in my lifetime and I began teaching in 1974. Their ignorant belligerence is driving the chaos.
Driven, I am sure by some Hicks Morley type management lawyers, whining local principals, and the hunt for pennies in the sofa cushions, boards have targeted teachers and support staff with claw backs and roll backs and a return to stern management authority over the collegial model that has developed over many decades. They seem to want Post Office style workplace labour relations because that is what they will get. The attempt to get all of this toothpaste back in the tube makes the boards look both foolish and mean-spirited at the same time. The trustees and senior staff need to know that there will be a high price to pay, long after the new contracts are concluded. They will be clearly seen for what they have become – the Sherriff of Nottingham under evil King John (Queen Kathleen) at the provincial level. Both will be despised by their uncooperative, restive staff. They seem to have lost sight of the importance of happy, contented staff in the lives of their students. Rancorous, painful negotiations will lead many staff to permanently drop extra-curricular activities even without any union encouragement, just as one example. Watch the sick days go through the roof. You will see all the classic signs of an alienated workforce.
Boards use their superintendents, but more often their principals as their eyes and ears inside the actual schools. Many principals are great, some not so much but all seem to crave more hands on control of the workplace and the ability to reward and punish those who comply or resist their plans and inclinations. I call it the ‘my school’ syndrome. “Yes I am the boss of you!”
Principals in the past loved to ‘shave’ the class sizes by putting 1-2 more students in English, math, history, geography and science classes and take the accumulated staff savings to support a favorite ‘pet program’ that could not be justified under tight staffing rules. The core teachers hate this and feel they are made to pay the price for principals’ pet projects. Principals and by extension boards want a return to those days on steroids and teachers want to prevent this at all costs. Principals and trustees want to show that they are ‘innovative’ to either get promoted in the former case or re-elected in the latter. Sorry, it is hard to be ‘innovative’ when you cannot take care of basic programming.
Until teachers negotiated caps on on-call coverage in some boards, principals were assigning almost all teacher prep time to coverage for absent colleagues or teachers on field trips, sporting events and so on. This bypassed the substitute teachers, mainly young grads, who actually wanted the work. How soon principals, all former teachers, forget the daily life of classroom teachers. Principals want a return to this form of abuse. Trustees are surprised at the level of resistance to a return to this type of exploitive command and control regime. They shouldn’t be. Shop floor politics is actually really serious politics.
In the past, many trustees used their ‘bully pulpit’ role to speak out at parent meetings and through brochures against radical cutbacks in provincial funding creating an alliance of parents, teachers, support staff, students and trustees against the province. Kathleen Wynne understands this because she played an active role in it. Trustees have effectively abandoned this coalition to side with the province and scapegoat the staff for their funding woes. This is a serious political misjudgment on their part as it provides political cover for continued cutbacks by the province. Toleration of cutbacks and underfunding only leads to more cutbacks and more underfunding.
Michael Barrett, Chair of the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) has surfaced as teacher enemy #3 behind the Premier Wynne and the Education Minister Sandals. There will soon be calls for both to step down as obvious incompetent failures and impediments to bargaining, in their respective roles. Their credibility is fraying at the edges. Trustees and the province can’t seem to realize that they can only win through legislation, the nuclear option, which leads to the total demoralization of their staff. The government is smart enough to know that a legislated pyrrhic victory will only lead to a lower quality of actual classroom education and lower results as teachers and support staff just stop ‘going the extra mile’. The Premier and Education minister go on and on about how we need a ‘negotiated contract’. Well that isn’t happening as long as the board demands remain on the table.
A very high price will be paid by the karma that ensues for both the boards and the Liberals. Recently, Ontario and Canada have built themselves up to become a very significant leader in the international education. Our high secondary and post- secondary graduation rates (best in the world) have led some to call us ‘
The Finland of the Americas’. This has been built by hard working teachers and support staff working WITH boards and the province to build this system. The so-called “Ontario Miracle” is at stake. A jackboot settlement will signal that the cooperation necessary to maintain and extend the “miracle” is over.
In a late development as this story was finishing, Kathleen Wynne has called all parties in to seek a solution to the above mess. You will be told that a tanking Justin Trudeau and a strike during the federal election was not the reason. Don't believe it.