Steve Paikin: Should Ontario take away teachers’ right to strike?

By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 05, 2015
Ontario teachers on the picket line in Mississauga.

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Ontario has decided in its wisdom that transit workers, police officers, and ambulance paramedics are essential public services and therefore are forbidden from striking. Will the public soon demand the same of teachers?

Looking back on recent and not-so-recent history, it’s easy to see why frustrated parents and students might be tempted by the idea.

Not long ago, when the books were balanced, keeping Ontario’s teachers happy was easy. Contracts with the teacher unions were being settled for increases of roughly three per cent every year – well above the rate of inflation – meaning there was labour peace all ‘round.

Former Premier Dalton McGuinty used to boast that, unlike during the Mike Harris years when teacher unions were constantly at war with the government both through strikes and political protests, there wasn’t a single student day lost to strikes under his watch. Moreover, the high school graduation rate jumped significantly, an historic full-day kindergarten program was implemented, and Ontario jumped to the top of the list of successful education systems worldwide – just tons of good news to report all the time.

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Then the province’s fiscal situation deteriorated in frightening fashion following the Great Recession of 2008 – and everything changed.

McGuinty went on YouTube in early 2012 to announce he was going to have to take back benefits that teachers had already successfully bargained for (sick days, for example) to save money.

Furthermore, the days of big salary increases were over. Predictably, the teacher unions hit the roof, withdrew their supervision of extracurricular activities and a decade of peace came to an end.

When McGuinty retired and his former education minister Kathleen Wynne took over as premier, she took some initial steps to try to win the teachers back. And for a while, it worked.

Wynne was contrite, apologized for the heavy-handed nature of the government's previous negotiations under McGuinty, and restored some of the cuts to curry favour.

The detente didn't last.

This spring, secondary teachers in three boards launched what turned out to be illegal strikes, before the government legislated them back to work. Elementary teachers are still “working-to-rule,” refusing to put comments on report cards, and oversee standardized tests. And now, even the Catholic teachers union, which has avoided much of the drama in the past, is making noises about going on strike in September.

The education file is a dog's breakfast right now. The government is fighting persistent deficits, determined to balance the books by 2018 (an election year) and adamant that any wage increases will have to come out of other cuts or savings – that the settlements have to come with a “net zero” impact on the bottom line.

Teachers are feeling disrespected again, and think the government has a not-so-secret agenda to increase class sizes.

There has been plenty of criticism, from across the political spectrum, over how the Liberals under McGuinty and Wynne have managed their relationship with the teachers. Still, there’s a pattern here. Over the past four decades, no political party, once in government, has ultimately been able to avoid a fight with the teachers’ unions. Forty years ago, it was “Save us from Davis” that teachers chanted because they didn't approve of Bill Davis' handling of some issues. The Liberals came into power in 1985 and things temporarily got better. But eventually, the Grits couldn't satisfy the teachers and so the unions did their level best to help defeat the Peterson government in 1990. They were convinced the NDP would be better.

They weren't. The recession hit and the NDP brought in a “Social Contract,” forcing pay cuts on teachers and other public servants, to try to save billions. The teachers didn't like that, so they helped crush the NDP in 1995.

That led to Mike Harris, which in turn led to 120,000 teachers protesting in the streets with their “Days of Action,” as the Harris government tried to rein in costs and exert more provincial control over the education system. The McGuinty years were harmonious, but only as long as the provincial spigots were open. The moment things got financially difficult the love affair that started in 2003 was over.

From the teachers' perspective, they see themselves as an easy target when things get tough. I've talked to numerous teachers over the years who, when I've asked them what the government should do to get out of our fiscal mess, simply say “raise corporate taxes; don't come after our wages and benefits.” Governments of all stripes have resisted doing that, fearing it'll make Ontario less competitive and antagonize the business community.

I don't know any teachers that want to be on strike. They want to be in the classroom teaching. They also want respect from whomever is in power. That seems reasonable. Still, a common public perception that the teachers’ unions feel they have to pulverize whichever party is in power if they don't get their way has led to criticism, more than a few times, that their strategy of confrontation is selfish and ultimately self-defeating.  

So is it time to take away the teachers’ right to strike?

Education is surely an essential ingredient to a province’s future prosperity. Collective bargaining doesn’t appear to be working. It seems to put a temporary band-aid on problems. Parents and students are getting sick of the drama. How can anyone tell students in Durham region with a straight face that, even though they lost 25 days of schooling this year, they’re still ready to graduate to the next level?

Is taking away the teachers' right to strike on anyone's future agenda? I doubt it, but right now I bet there are a ton of parents – and maybe even some teachers – who’d welcome it. 

Image credit: OLA Communications/flickr.com

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