How will this teachers’ standoff actually end?

The dispute between the Ontario government and the teachers’ unions is about who speaks for Ontario’s education system. The answer should be clear
By Steve Paikin - Published on Mar 02, 2020
Protesters join a demonstration organized by the teachers’ unions outside Queen’s Park on February 21, 2020. (Chris Young/CP)

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If there’s one thing we categorically, absolutely, know about the current dispute between the Ontario government and the teachers’ unions, it’s that it will end.

Someday.

No one knows when, but, surely as night follows day, it will. Every previous teachers’ dispute has, and this one will, too.

The question is, how?

At the moment, no one knows the answer. Both sides seem deeply dug in on their positions and are convinced of their righteousness.

The government is trying to balance the province’s books and, as a result, has passed a law putting a 1 per cent cap on any potential wage settlement. That’s a non-starter for the teachers, who point out that, with inflation running at around 2 per cent, agreeing to a 1 per cent wage increase is tantamount to taking a pay cut. No public-sector union leader could accept that. After all, they need to get re-elected, too.

The government is looking for further savings by increasing class sizes and insisting on mandatory online courses for high-school students. Both those items would reduce the number of teachers required for the education system — again, another non-starter for the union leaders, whose mandate, after all, is to defend, even increase, the size of their membership.

The teachers are also planting a flag to stop further cuts to the education system and ensure that there’s no erosion of the very popular full-day kindergarten program, introduced a decade ago by the Dalton McGuinty Liberals.

Often, governments get these disputes off their radar by sending them to binding arbitration and letting an independent party decide them. But, in recent years, that’s been a less appealing option because arbitrators have been siding with unions and rewarding them with settlements that governments feel are too generous.

On February 21, the unions staged their most impressive show of solidarity to date with a massive demonstration at Queen’s Park. All four (elementary, secondary, Catholic, and French) participated in a provincewide, all-hands-on-deck strike. That’s 200,000 people, if you include teachers, educational assistants, and other workers.   

For the most part, the teachers have been clever about how they’ve approached inconveniencing parents and students in their battle to win the hearts and minds of Ontarians and haven’t put too many peoples’ noses out of joint. The secondary teachers, for example, have declined to withdraw their services when it comes to supervising extracurricular activities: they know that doing so would be the quickest way to alienate parents and students alike. We learned that when the teachers withdrew those services during the previous Liberal government’s time in office.

When this dispute started, many observers assumed that a negotiated settlement probably wouldn’t be on. The two sides are simply too entrenched. I’ve spoken to many teachers who assume that the fight will end when the government legislates them back into their classrooms.

But, again, the unions have been pretty clever about that. Back-to-work legislation has always been any government’s tool of last resort — only to be used if the students’ passing into the next grade were in jeopardy.

And the definition of “jeopardy” isn’t some abstract concept. It’s actually spelled out in the Education Act. A student’s year isn’t in jeopardy until a teachers’ strike eliminates a certain number of prescribed teaching days from the calendar (it’s about 30). And, at the moment, the unions are nowhere close to hitting that number. By staging rotating strikes around the province and organizing only a few provincewide strike days, the unions have managed to create a significant amount of public awareness of the issues in this dispute without coming close to jeopardizing any student’s year.

So if the government ultimately sought to end this dispute with back-to-work legislation, the unions’ lawyers would presumably point out that the move was not only ill-advised but also illegal — because no student’s year was actually in jeopardy. They might also point out that the law putting a 1 per cent ceiling on salary increases is unconstitutional because it illegally interferes with collective bargaining. (McGuinty’s bill imposing a settlement on teachers was later found to be unconstitutional.)

Could the unions get an injunction from a court denying the government the right to impose back-to-work legislation? Maybe. Would the government use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to override that court’s decision? Based on Premier Doug Ford’s statements during his first year in power, almost certainly. Would the consequences of such a move be politically damaging? Once again, maybe. You can bet the premier’s office has played out this chess match to see whose king is still standing at the end. But, of course, in politics, you just never can tell whether the thing will play out as you’ve imagined.

But, lest the unions start feeling too cocky about their current legal position, let’s remember the clock is ticking on them, too. Let’s take just the secondary teachers, for example. There are 60,000 of them in Ontario. Whenever they take a provincewide strike day, that’s about $500 (on average) of foregone salary for each teacher. In return, they receive $50 of strike pay for each teacher, meaning a $3 million hit to union coffers. How many $3 million hits could the secondary teachers’ union take before cracks begin to show in their wall of support (or in the union’s bank account)?

After all is said and done, this dispute is about pretty much the same thing as all previous disputes: who speaks for Ontario’s education system. Is it the government, which won a mandate from the public in June 2018 to bring in the reforms it wants? Or is it the teachers, who are the permanent guardians of the system, who work on the front lines and know where the strengths and weaknesses are because they see them every day?

The answer, of course, is both. And it’s incumbent on both sides to find the sweet spot that’ll let everyone go home claiming a bit of victory and acknowledging a bit of defeat.

Former premier Bill Davis, who was perhaps Ontario’s best-ever education minister (for eight years during the 1960s), once said: “If you get education right, everything else falls into place.” By that, he meant that a well-educated citizen has a better chance of finding a good job and a good mate, staying healthier, avoiding the correctional system, and, essentially, being happy.

It’s incumbent on both sides to figure this out. The Ford government’s future political success depends on it. The education system’s future depends on it. Creating happier students requires it.

So how does this thing eventually end?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that $50 of strike pay for each teacher would result in a $300,000 hit to union coffers. In fact, the figure is $3 million. TVO.org regrets the error.

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