At a time when educators are working hard to get the message out to school children that bullying is unacceptable, Dalton McGuinty, our ‘education premier’, is using bully tactics to bring teachers’ unions across the province to heel as his government tries to bring budget overspending in line.
The 2012 budget presented by the Ontario Liberal government was designed to take control of a runaway deficit. Promising to find savings and restrain spending by $17 billion over three years, key lines in the Liberal budget included bringing public sector workers, including teachers, to the bargaining table to have them accept a two-year wage freeze. Also being negotiated with teachers’ unions are cuts to sick days and ending payment for banked sick days for those who are retiring.
The Liberals’ plan for cuts also includes the threat of legislation if these groups do not comply.
It is understandable that the education sector would be so specifically targeted since its allocation is second only to healthcare in Ontario. The combined budget allocation for both amounts to just under 60 per cent of the $115-billion budget for 2012. Primary and secondary education alone receive $22 billion. But to keep to its schedule to balance the budget by 2017 the government is aiming for $500 million in savings in the education ministry this year.
The pressure in ongoing negotiations between the government and the province’s biggest teachers unions, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), is increasing with the approaching September 4 back-to-school start date.
In fact, the Liberals have called provincial parliamentarians back to Queen’s Park Monday to vote on legislation to prevent teachers from taking any strike action while negotiations continue.
ETFO president Sam Hammond has called the government’s proposed legislation ‘unprecedented’, given that there is currently no mandate from the teachers to strike.
With looming September 6 by-elections in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan, the minority Liberal government is being deservedly criticized, mainly by the unions and their supporters, for using this fight to draw support from conservative voters to help them win those by-elections – and a majority government.
McGuinty has been accused of borrowing from the old Mike Harris playbook, and creating a crisis in education for political gain. Contract negotiations are always fraught with rhetoric and hyperbole, but what is different this time in this back-and-forth between the government and the teachers’ unions is that the unions do not have strong vocal support from the public.
The times are different and most people know that this government has gone some way to cater to the education sector including pay increases over the past four years of up to 12.55 per cent. These were very generous, and if the government can’t afford it now people expect that there should be some give and take.
Most people who don’t have paid sick days and the privilege of annual summer holidays would be hard pressed to take the side of teachers during a weak economy that is just inching out of a recession.
So as bullying as this bill appears to be, it seems a safe gamble for McGuinty. Bearing in mind also that the vote on Monday is not a confidence vote, what looks like a daring move is really a very calculated one and hardly risky.
Of course, the question needs to be asked whether it is right to ask teachers to carry so much of the deficit burden. And, is it a wise move to alienate the people who are educating the future leaders of our country?
While it is important for people to realize we are in different times, the government’s strong-armed methods are troubling, especially since it is dealing with people who have been its strongest supporters over the years.
What should its adversaries expect?