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Archive for the ‘Teacher Walkouts’ Category

Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails.  With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert  back-to-school disruptions.  Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.

OntarioTeacherProtestsA recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.

Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government.  A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000  to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.

Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.

While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia.  Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol.  Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint.  In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1)  totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).

The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table.  After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away.  That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’

Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.

Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.”  Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost.  Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.

Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems?  Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?

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In September 1979, the York Region Public School Board locked me out. After reporting for school one morning, my OSSTF Representative Dick Barron stopped me in the Thornlea Secondary School parking lot. Huddled together with the other teachers, I was told that the Board had shut down the schools and we were advised to go home until further notice.  As a youngish teacher in my sixth year, all I wanted to do was teach – and the frustration welled-up inside, not really knowing who to blame for the shutdown.

OntarioTeachersWalkoutD12That infamous York Region dispute, following a year of OSSTF “work-to-rule” actions, came back to me last week as hundreds of elementary teachers marched outside the York Region Board offices on Wellington Street in Aurora, Ontario.  Back in 1978-79, the York Region teachers succeeded in holding the line, but not much more was really gained. It is also a safe bet that history will repeat itself again.

The raging Ontario teachers’ dispute with the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government, sparked by Bill 115, has led to bitter denunciations, a breakdown in contract negotiations, the suspension of voluntary secondary school extra-curricular activities, and a rotating round of teacher walkouts. Walkout, lockout, or mini-strike –it’s the worst rupture in labour peace since the Ontario teachers’ war against Mike Harris Conservative Common Sense Revolution in the late 1990s.

The essentials of education are all too often mistaken for the “extras.”  Suspending voluntary extra-curricular activities and “walking-out” of school may serve some purpose in defense of teacher rights and current salary levels, but such actions tend to have damaging long-term effects. Students remember being held hostage waiting out the disruption.  Provincial governments come away with a blackened public reputation, striking teachers feel persecuted and underappreciated, and school boards are left to put the shattered pieces back together again.

Everyone in the public education sector these days claims to be “putting students first.” That phrase rings mighty hollow in the throes and the later wake of labour disruptions like those in Ontario and in British Columbia over the past year.

Students come first in schools when principals and teachers, supported by school boards, provide those “extras” above and beyond the normal contracted services. It’s only visible when school authorities run the risk of sponsoring student-run conferences, principals support Ottawa or Washington experience field trips, and teacher professionals volunteer to coach the low profile, time-consuming track or tennis teams.

Student engagement is what transforms opportunities into real, deep learning experiences. Filing into class each day, taking classroom notes, and writing tests or examinations rarely stay with you at the end of a school year. “A theatre club can build all those life skills that matter more than knowing how to calculate a math equation,” says Dr. Doug Willms, Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Social Policy (CRISP) at the University of New Brunswick.

Dr. Willms’ ongoing CRISP Student Survey, now in its eighth year and including close to 500,000 students, has demonstrated conclusively that student participation in teams and clubs has a very positive influence on class attendance and overall student success, and, to a slightly lesser extent, on individual academic grades.  A 2009 U.S. study involving 8,000 students, cited recently in The Globe and Mail, showed that active, engaged high school students, a decade after graduation, were earning more money than their less involved contemporaries.

Teacher labour disputes, just like band program cuts, can adversely affect critical relationships in schools.  Toronto educator, Stephen Hurley, founder of VoicEd.ca, perhaps put it best: “Look what people do when they leave school,” he recently told The Globe and Mail. “Everything is grounded in relationships.”

Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty invested heavily in public education, increasing spending by 45 per cent between 2003 and 2011, not even counting the massive amounts for full-day junior kindergarten. Most of that money went to salary increases to the very teachers now cheering his downfall.

McGuinty’s prized Ontario educational legacy now lies in tatters and not even a strategic climb-down can salvage the broken relationship with the teachers’ unions.  Regular elementary classroom teachers, fired up by the EFTO’s Sam Hammond, are sure to remain embittered for months or years to come.  Militant secondary school teachers may, once again, harbour resentment and continue to punish kids by refusing to initiate or supervise voluntary extra-curricular activities.  Pity those new teachers entering the profession amidst the poisoned labour-management environment in schools.

Who is responsible for the current breakdown in negotiations and teacher walkouts in Ontario and earlier labour disruptions in British Columbia?  After pouring millions of dollars into public education, how can reversing field be justified, let alone explained?  Who gains from such bitter labour disputes — and what are the long-term consequences for students, for student-teacher relationships, and for public support of our provincial systems?

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