When it comes to teachers, the Tories are being smarter than you’d expect

OPINION: During its first year in office, the Ford government advanced unpopular proposals and then backpedalled. It’s gotten more cautious — and a whole lot shrewder
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 06, 2020
Striking teachers from Kew Beach Junior Public School, in Toronto, on January 20. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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This morning in Ontario, there are 83,000 elementary-school teachers on picket lines instead of inside classrooms. This is the second provincewide work stoppage that the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has thus far launched. The consequences will be felt particularly in Toronto and some of its suburbs. In the province’s largest city, teachers will also be on picket lines on Friday as part of a planned rotating strike. It doesn’t look any better next week: schools in Toronto are scheduled to be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. With a scheduled PA day already on the books for the end of next week and the Family Day holiday due on the Monday after next, elementary-school kids across the province will be spending an awful lot of time outside the classroom these next few weeks.

In several recent columns here at TVO.org, I have looked, with some degree of admiration, at the strategy employed by Ontario’s teachers’ unions. One does not have to agree with the strikes to appreciate sound strategy when one sees it. The teachers’ unions have gradually but steadily escalated the pressure on the provincial government, and they’ve done it in a way that does not run an overly high risk of alienating broad swaths of the public. It has been shrewd. I like shrewd.

But if there’s been one deficiency in my recent columns, it has been not necessarily giving the government credit for its own prudence. There is, at this time, no sign that the provincial government is losing any of its will to resist pressure from the unions. And it, too, has a communications plan it is sticking to.

Noting that the government has a communications plan that it is sticking to may seem like a statement of the obvious. In normal circumstances, it would be. But the Ford government has not had a typical experience with effective government comms. It spent most of its first year in office advancing a series of unpopular proposals and then later retreating on many of them, after weeks of trying to hang on. From a political perspective, this resulted in the government incurring major damage to its brand for having advocated the unpopular idea in the first place (and often defending it at some length) without ever eventually reaping any benefit of whatever the proposal had been. It was a worst-case scenario, played out again and again. The Tories took all the hits at the outset, took more hits as they tried to defend the position, looked like fools when they eventually abandoned it, and received zero credit for having changed their mind.

If you want to know how Ford went from winning a majority government to trailing the leaderless Liberals in the polls within 18 months, that’s how.

Some of this dysfunction has been evident in the government’s stand against the teachers’ unions. It’s by no means a model example of government strategy or communications. But the recent actions have been much smarter and more cautious than Ford’s first year in office would have led us to expect. That may sound like a damning with faint praise, but it’s an entirely sincere statement. It is a good thing for the teachers that their unions are proceeding so cautiously. The government does seem ready for blowback in a way that it would not have been even a year and a half ago.

It’s becoming an old refrain, but it’s important to remember that, for the teachers, a strike is a big, big risk. There is no guarantee that a disrupted and inconvenienced public will decide that the unions’ demands are worth all the hassle. Polling has, thus far, shown that the teachers have the support of a majority of the public: public opinion is currently running two-to-one in favour of the unions over the government. But that could quickly change — and the government has been as shrewd as the teachers in positioning itself to gain advantage from any swings in support.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce is doing his very best to always appear a reasonable, thoughtful man. At every opportunity, he gets himself before the cameras and talks about how reasonable his government has been, how willing to negotiate. He cites some of the controversial proposals his government has already withdrawn and stresses how important it is to keep kids in classrooms. On Thursday morning, as teachers took to the picket lines, he released a statement to that effect. And the government has also announced it is prepared to compensate parents of young children for each day of closed schools, while repeatedly saying it will insist on standing its ground on any salary increases for teachers. The unions insist that compensation is not the key issue, but Lecce can still talk about it and hope that’s what gets lodged in the public’s mind.

In other words, the Ford government’s strategy can be easily summarized as “Don’t blame us. We’re the reasonable ones here. And remember, the teachers already make a lot of money.”

Will it work? Who knows? It’s far from clear how closely the public is even following the details of the labour dispute — Lord knows, there’s enough else going on in the world these days. Information overload is a thing, probably for parents of young children more than many.

But the Tories are being smart. Just like the unions are being smart. And that’s what ought to concern parents the most. Both sides have plans. Both sides, in fact, have pretty good plans. And, to date, they both seem intent on sticking to them.

Author’s note: Just over a week ago, I interviewed Frank Plummer for a TVO.org article. Plummer, who had served as the head of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory during the SARS epidemic of 2003, shared his experiences and insights regarding the current novel coronavirus epidemic. When I spoke with Plummer, he was in Kenya to attend a conference. After the formal segment of the interview was complete, and I thanked him for his time, we chatted briefly and had a few laughs, and he kindly offered to speak with me again if that would be helpful. I said I’d be in touch. And I meant it — he was a goldmine of an interview, an incredibly rich source of information.

Exactly a week after our interview, Plummer collapsed and died on the way to a hospital in Nairobi. I was deeply saddened to hear of this, so soon after our first chat — a chat I’d hoped would be the first of many. It would not be possible to do my job if people were not willing to freely offer me so much of their time. Time is the most precious commodity for each of us. His was more precious than he knew. I’d like to take this chance to express my sympathy to his family and my gratitude for the share of his final days he kindly gave me.

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