Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thomas Walkom's Perspective on Teacher Unrest

On this blog I have written periodically about unions in both a favourable and a critical light. I have argued both for their necessity to mitigate the depredations that employers are sometimes given to, and I have pilloried them when cronyism or malfeasance have undermined their effectiveness.

In the latter part of my teaching career, I felt that my union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, had become far too political in the worst sense of the word, listening only to the privileged few in executive positions while largely ignoring the rank and file, i.e., the frontline workers. As well, becoming advocates for the Ontario Liberal government, I felt, was always a very bad idea because while governments and unions may sometimes have common goals, their interests are not usually congruent, a fact that has become egregiously evident with the McGuinty government's betrayal of collective bargaining principles when it comes to teacher contracts.

In this morning's Star, columnist Thomas Walkom argues that the current unrest, soon to erupt into strikes, is easy to understand, given that teachers have nothing to lose due to the absence of anything resembling free bargaining in the current climate:

For teachers, the choice given them by the provincial Liberal government amounts to no choice at all. The government urges the unions to bargain with local school boards. But it insists that the final results must fit a template that it has already pre-ordained.

Those that don’t voluntarily agree to this template contract — which includes wage freezes for some, cutbacks that amount to wage reductions for others and the elimination of some benefits — will, under extraordinary legislation passed this fall, have it imposed on them.

The unions are being told: “Yes, we have a gun to your head. But if you wish, you can pull the trigger yourself.”

It seems the teaching unions prefer that the government’s prints alone be on the weapon.

He goes on to say that the nature of the constitutional challenge being mounted to the legislation, Bill 115, will be undermined should too many teacher locals sign contracts under duress, leaving the government with the opportunity to argue that it can't be unconstitutional if groups have agreed to its restrictions.

Left unsaid in his piece, however, is another reason I suspect the federations are refusing to be a further party to this charade. Because of the grave mistake they made in allying themselves with a political party, much of their effectiveness has been compromised over the past several years, to the point that their relevance, especially to younger teachers, is not readily apparent. I remember in the latter part of my career hearing some young teachers question the need for unions in general, and OSSTF in particular, never having witnessed them in their finest hours.

At least now, with the federations finally showing some backbone against government abuse of power, they will have an inkling of what unions are there for.


  1. Because governments change, Lorne, it's always a mistake for unions to march under a particular party's flag.

    Teachers were loyal supporters of McGuinty. But, when the direction of the political winds changed, that loyalty meant nothing.

  2. We can only hope they have learned a hard lesson from this dalliance, Owen.

  3. Despite the fact that, like any institutionalized power structure, unions can be occasionally problematic, I am almost always prepared to favor unions over governments for the simple reason that governments have the force of legislative power behind them. As the the horrific Liberal Bill 155 demonstrates, when governments go bad they strike at the very heart of democracy and human rights. I think most people are woefully uninformed about the history of capitalism, and if capitalists were free to treat workers anyway they wanted we would soon once again have the good old days when children worked in factories.

  4. I couldn't agree with you more, Kirby. The key would seem to be educating people about unbridled capitalism's
    decidedly checkered record as an antidote to the right-wing propaganda in which it can do no wrong.

  5. Overall, the government proposal is a bad deal for teachers. There is no advantage for the teachers to accept the OECTA MOU or some modified form of it.

    My problem with the passage of Bill 115 is not just the conditions of employment that the government has imposed on teachers. It is what could happen two years from now when the contracts must be negotiated/imposed again on teachers. If this government can get away with imposing bad conditions, the next government of any political stripe can impose worse conditions.

    SD BEd

  6. I suspect, SD, that Tim Hudak is salivating over the precedent that Dalton McGuinty has established with this odious legislation. Should he ever gain power, his union-busting inclinations will be that much easier to indulge.