In a column for TVO.org last month, with tongue partially planted in cheek, I compared the ongoing dispute between the Ontario government and the province’s assorted teachers’ unions to a nuclear standoff. Specifically, I referenced the scene from the 1984 British film Threads. It depicts the character Bob, a young working-class man who spends his time drinking beer and pursuing romance, seeing a mushroom cloud go up on the horizon as a geopolitical crisis between the Soviet Union and the Western alliance progresses from conventional fighting to the beginnings of a general nuclear exchange. “They’ve done it!” Bob cries.
When I wrote that column, secondary-school teachers had just “done it” themselves by launching a one-day “job action” — a strike. It was a shrewd strategy, I said then, a big enough move that the government would notice but also one that left room for both sides to continue negotiating. High-school students are old enough to stay at home for the day. It’s an irritant but not a major inconvenience.
“In the world of Threads,” I wrote, “a one-day work stoppage affecting only high schools would be busting a small tactical nuke over an airfield somewhere ... it’s crossing a line. Where do the unions go from here? Well, obviously, they hope that the government will come up with a better deal. ... But it’s equally possible that the government will decide that it is not prepared to make major concessions, and leave the ball in the union’s court. [The] unions then have a choice between two options: surrender or escalate.”
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The government didn’t blink, and the unions made their choice. They escalated.
On Monday, for the first time, elementary-school teachers engaged in a one-day strike in locations including Toronto, the province’s capital and largest city. Other boards have since seen their elementary-schools closed on a one-day rotating basis; more have been announced for next week. Unlike high-school students, elementary students cannot generally care for themselves if left alone for a day (the oldest grades are possible exceptions, depending on the maturity of the student). Parents were forced to make alternative arrangements. This is absolutely a major step — and it wasn’t the only one. Some of the teaching unions are now stating that their members will not produce report cards or hold parent-teacher interviews. That’s another major inconvenience for families — in fact, for those of us blessed with good family supports or the ability to work from home, it’ll have a much more meaningful impact than a one-day strike every few weeks.
The unions are proceeding in a smart way. I’m not as alarmed as they profess to be by some of the proposed changes sought, on cost-saving grounds, by the Ontario government (which has already withdrawn some of its more controversial proposals). But the unions are, as they should be, looking to the interests of their membership. One doesn’t have to belong to them or agree with them to grant that their strategy thus far has been sound. They are continually imposing political costs on the government, and keeping the issue front and centre in the public eye, without going to the full nuclear option — a general strike.
Polling suggests it’s working. Frank Graves of Ekos tweeted a slide depicting some research his firm will soon release: it shows that 57 per cent of Ontarians back the unions and 30 per cent support the government (10 per cent backed neither, and 2 per cent had no opinion). That’s almost a two-to-one margin in favour of the unions; it breaks down, fairly predictably, along partisan lines. That may seem bad for the government, but I was actually struck by how close the numbers were. The unions have slightly more than half of the public’s support. If a strike were to sour public opinion, even a fairly modest swing could bring the unions’ numbers below 50 per cent overall approval and rapidly narrow the gap between the government and the unions.
That’s all hypothetical. And, though the Ford government has improved its communications game of late, we shouldn’t underestimate its ability to shoot its own feet. The unions have a strong position, but not, to my mind, a decisive one — and a strike is a gamble. Ontario teachers are well-compensated and receive excellent benefits and perks. A prolonged strike might lead some Ontarians to wonder why they’re being forced to scramble to find child care while teachers earning more withdraw their services. Teachers I know personally are wary of exactly this. They know it would be a hard thing to sell to the parents of their students.
So, for the time being, expect more of the same. The government hasn’t shown any sign that it’s bending, and it’s not being hurt in the polls yet — if anything, its numbers, though still weak, are improving slightly. The unions, meanwhile, are keeping the pressure on while still retaining the support of most of the public. Neither side has much reason to change their stance yet, and both have good reasons not to. It could be a good long while before some Ontario parents see a report card again.