If anyone thought that putting a new face on Ontario’s Liberal minority government was going to change the mood of teachers as their unions work with the Ministry of Education to repair a damaged relationship, they were being too optimistic.
Reconciliation has certainly not yet been reached. Indeed, the tensions between the teachers and the government have not eased.
With Kathleen Wynne, a former education minister, now premier, and former school board trustee and ex-president of the Ontario School Boards Association, Liz Sandals, now the education minister, there was the hope that getting teachers back into the Liberals’ corner would be a slam-dunk.
Sound bites from the 76,000-member Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Sam Hammond, and Ken Coran, president of the 60,000-member Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), certainly signaled a thaw. In the early stages of renewed talks, Coran spoke of “a shift to the way business used to be done” by the Liberals.
Moreover, in the latest round of discussions between the unions and the government in an effort to get back to an amenable working relationship, the teachers’ unions have tried to be accommodating, taking the government’s request that teachers resume supervision of extracurricular activities to their membership, while the two sides work to come to an agreement on the protocol for future contract negotiations.
Whatever headway teachers’ unions and the government are making, however, is not yet translating into a thaw among the membership. A significant number of them have so far rejected the request to go back to extracurricular activities such as the organization of, or assisting with, after-school clubs, sports teams, field trips and other similar after school activities.
But if teachers continue to dig in their heels, they risk losing further public support. We know that parents are losing patience while many students are torn between supporting their teachers and their own desire to have teachers resume extracurricular supervision.
In addition to the unease of those with a vested interest in this dispute, workers in today’s labour market, which is increasingly characterized by job insecurity, no benefits and diminishing wages, have a hard time sympathizing with public sector workers they consider among the elites of the labour force.
Teachers are well-paid unionized workers –a privileged class of workers. Their decision to withdraw from supervising extracurricular activities as a form of protest against Bill 115 that removed their right to strike is not a winning strategy. Withdrawal from extracurriculars does not hurt the government, but does make teachers look mean-spirited.
Teacher participation in extracurriculars is purely voluntary. It is not paid work, and from the looks of it, not in the job description, but no doubt encouraged. As such, it is now a part of our education culture to expect teachers to volunteer their time. However, it is important for parents and students to understand that the teachers’ participation in extracurriculars is not mandatory.
There was a time when the Liberals and teachers were on friendlier terms. The Liberals had spared no effort to win the support of teachers’ unions angry with the Harris-era Conservatives’ deficit fighting agenda that froze teachers’ salaries.
Teachers received generous annual increases during the McGuinty era; McGuinty himself claiming that they received salary increases of 80 per cent under his watch.
But when McGuinty, facing his own deficit challenges, did an about face and ‘manufactured a crisis’ by enacting Bill 115 to prevent teachers from striking and unilaterally set new contract conditions, teachers had a hard time differentiating between McGuinty and Harris.
It has become very obvious that the voluntary activities provided by the teachers had been taken for granted. It has also become very obvious how important those activities are in the lives of our students. However, while the teachers may be within their rights to withhold volunteer service, with students being deprived, teachers are treading on morally questionable ground.
They need to fix this and find another means of leverage in dealing with the government.