I live just a few hundred metres from a public high school. As I marched my own kids out the door this morning to get them to their elementary school on time, I noticed the streets were not nearly as busy as usual. There were fewer cars in the neighbourhood. The buses looked emptier. There was more room on the slippery sidewalks. That’s because there’s no class for Ontario high-school students today. All across the province, high schools are closed for a one-day walkout by teachers, the latest step in their ongoing labour dispute with the government.
And this, of course, brought to mind the 1984 made-for-TV British film Threads.
Threads is not for the faint of heart. It is the British counterpart to the 1983 American television film The Day After. Both films depict the progression of a geopolitical crisis between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. In both, the crisis continually deteriorates. First, there is diplomacy, then conventional fighting, then a limited use of nuclear weapons on military forces and targets, and then, horrifyingly, a general nuclear exchange targeting population centres and industry. Both films depict the devastating consequences of those exchanges of nuclear weapons.
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You’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with Wednesday’s job action. Indulge me just one more minute. In Threads, one of the characters, Bob, spends the first part of the film, as the global crisis is worsening, not worrying about it. He’s focused on drinking beers at the pub and chasing the ladies. To the extent that he’s had any thoughts about the crisis, he’s laughed them off. He’s at work in the English industrial city of Sheffield when a Soviet nuclear warhead hits a nearby Royal Air Force base. As he sees the mushroom cloud rising over the city’s skyline, he’s stunned. “Jesus Christ, they’ve done it,” he says, biting his fingernails. “They’ve done it!”
It’s a great little scene, and it perfectly captures the mood. Once those missiles have flown, there’s no going back.
And this is what brings us back to the work stoppage in Ontario today.
In a recent column for TVO.org, I noted that a major job action is very risky for the teachers. Teachers in Ontario are very well paid for their work and receive benefits and vacation time well above what the average Ontarian receives. I don’t begrudge the teachers their pay or benefits, but I do acknowledge them. Compared to provincial averages, they are objectively well compensated. In most areas of the province, it’s a safe bet that an Ontario teacher is making more money and has better benefits and retirement security than most of the parents of the students in their classroom.
Strikes impose costs on the teachers, of course — they lose wages. But the purpose of the strike is to impose political pain on the government by inconveniencing the broader population. Parents and grandparents and other caregivers are the losers in a strike, or at least the biggest losers. Imposing this pain on them is a calculated political decision by the teachers’ unions. A strike puts the pressure on the government to come to the table and deal — and get life back to normal. But the danger for the unions is that public sympathy will turn against them. Telling a mom or dad making $40,000 a year that they need to scramble to make child-care arrangements because someone making more than double that wants a better contract is not an impossible sell. But it sure ain’t an easy one.
The union leadership obviously understands this. A one-day strike that closes only high schools minimizes disruption to the public. It’s the rare high-school student who can’t be left alone at home for a day. I see what the unions are doing here, and I think it’s shrewd. They’ve sent a message to the government that they are serious, but the message has been very carefully targeted to minimize collateral damage, as it were, on the broader population.
But here’s the thing. It is also undeniably an escalation. In the world of Threads or The Day After, the equivalent of a one-day work stoppage affecting only high schools would be busting a small tactical nuke over an airfield somewhere. Yes, it’s not a kill shot aimed right at the cities, but 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. The unions would then be able to declare victory without risking any major blowback from the public. 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.
Well, to put it in Cold War terms, the unions then have a choice between two options: surrender or escalate.
The one wildcard here, of course, is that Christmas is just around the corner. There are only 12 instructional days left (not counting the one lost to the walkout). Striking over the holidays doesn’t make any sense. Absent some kind of breakthrough at the bargaining table, this puts both parties in an interesting position. Do they both escalate now and hope the other side folds before the holidays? Or do they settle for a temporary ceasefire and get back to it in the new year?
I make no prediction on that score. But I’ll be watching with interest over the next couple of days. A one-day strike that affects only teenagers, and then only in the middle of the week, is a smart move. But it doesn’t feel like the last move.