Can the Tories afford to be patient in their showdown with teachers’ unions?

OPINION: For the first time in a generation, there are work stoppages at public schools across Ontario. The government doesn’t have to take action now — but it’s unclear how it will win this fight
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 17, 2020
Ontario's minister of education Stephen Lecce speaks during a press conference to announce a tentative deal reached with CUPE in Toronto on October 6, 2019. (Cole Burston/CP)

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Premier Doug Ford supports teachers — just ask him. The problems besetting his government aren’t the fault of front-line teachers in classrooms, he told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday, but the work of union leaders who refuse to compromise with a government that needs to constrain costs. Basically, he’s trying to draw a distinction between the good, hardworking people in an organization and the upper reaches of leadership, who refuse to reach across the table to find an agreement.

But on the topic of whether leadership is listening to the lower ranks, Thursday also provided a reminder that the premier’s record is hardly spotless. Glengarry–Prescott–Russell MPP Amanda Simard made it official that she’s joining the Liberal party, having bolted from the Tory caucus over the government’s cuts to French-language services back in 2018. Simard told reporters that the Liberals are “the party of the future” and said that the softer image the government has been trying to sell to voters won’t help: “Simply changing the tone is not changing the reckless cuts and agenda and the intention.”

Simard’s poke at the party whose banner she was elected under comes as the party is struggling in the polls — a Pollara survey this week was just the latest to show the Liberals back in the lead. More important, the governing Tories are polling at just 29 per cent: these are the kind of numbers that ought to be setting off alarm bells in the premier’s office. And these numbers are both explained by, and explain, the current mess the government faces in the province’s schools.

For the first time in a generation, parents around the province are having to schedule their lives around unpredictable work stoppages at public schools. This might have been inevitable as the Liberal tenure came to an end: the Liberals mostly kept peace with the teachers unions over their 15 years in office; the notable exception — using Bill 115 in 2012 to strip teachers of their right to strike — was so painful for them that they spent the five years of Kathleen Wynne’s tenure rebuilding the relationship. But peace came with a price tag, and the education budget now represents the most obvious target for PC cost-cutting. The health-care budget may be larger, but any cuts there risk exacerbating the “hallway medicine” problem that helped get the Tories elected in the first place.

So when the premier says that under no circumstances will teachers get more than a 1 per cent increase in compensation, it’s worth understanding the context and choices the government made to bring it to this point. And when rotating strikes threaten to reach every school board in the province — ETFO announced its third tranche of strikes this morning — it’s clear that the government isn’t going to get what it wants peacefully. Whether the government lets this escalate all the way to a multi-day, provincewide strike remains to be seen, but if it gets that far, it won’t last long: the Tories will legislate teachers back to work.

If this is probably going to end with back-to-work legislation anyway, it’s at least worth asking why the government didn’t pass a law in the fall before the legislature took its Christmas break. The answer is that, despite everything, the Tories aren’t actually trying to escalate or inflame the situation more than they have to. They can afford to be patient. The government announced this week that it will be providing financial support for parents (as of Thursday night, 50,000 applications had already been filed, according to the premier’s office), paid for from projected savings from teachers going unpaid during strikes. So the government doesn’t need to hurry the process along just yet. The opposite is true for teachers’ unions: they’ll eventually have to apply maximum pressure on the government or risk losing their bargaining power as the school year draws to a close.

If the government can afford to be patient, it’s still not clear how it wins this fight. Those poll numbers we mentioned earlier are still quite bleak for the Tories (bleaker still when you look at the regional breakdowns), and it’s not obvious that voters will reward them, regardless of the outcome with teachers. If the Tories were still riding high in the polls, they could possibly afford to trade some temporary popularity for taking a harder line with teachers — but as they’re already struggling, there’s no room to give anything up.

So we’re stuck with the current state of affairs for a bit longer: the government doesn’t want to back down but also doesn’t want to take any more blame for a labour breakdown than it has to, and teachers’ unions, while they have real political power, understand that conservative politicians — including the current premier’s late brother — can often spin labour-dispute straw into political gold if unions are seen as having over-played their hands.

Eventually, someone’s going to reach their breaking point, but we’re not quite there yet.

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