It’s no surprise the Ford government has prompted unrest in the public-sector ranks, most notably of late among teachers. Activities such as the recent walkouts by students underline the potential for actual labour disputes in the next school year, with boards expected to make cuts to the number of teachers – whether that’s by attrition only, as the province maintains, or by layoffs.
The province is looking to get a handle on spending and runaway deficits. There will be attempts to curtail spending on many fronts. As the second-largest cost after health care – third place belongs to interest payments on the accumulated debt – education has to be in the equation by default.
It would come as no shock, then, if there are labour disruptions ahead. Ontarians aren’t unfamiliar with such things.
Unrest was common when last the Conservatives were in power. The Liberals arrived on the scene and began spending like sailors on shore leave, in large part to buy the votes of government workers and to avoid the optics of work stoppages. Eventually forced to confront their profligacy, the Liberals were immediately set upon by the same public-sector unions that had benefited handsomely.
Now, with the Conservatives back at the helm, the unions are on red alert.
When it comes to the schools, there is a recognizable pattern: teachers engage in skirmishes with the province and with their boards, the organizations that set the workaday agendas; parent councils struggle with extracurricular activities and the threat of work stoppages; and, as always, caught in the middle are students who suffer the consequences of decisions made by their elders.
The teachers’ unions have trotted out the tired old line about putting students first in every strike, work-to-rule campaign and labour negotiation, with only one goal in mind: getting more taxpayers’ dollars.
Given the perception that teachers are overpaid and underworked (all those holidays), coupled with the economic hard times for most Ontarians, public sentiment is clearly not with the unions.
Blame also lies with the province. Job action by teachers and other civil servants that became the norm under the Mike Harris government got the band-aid treatment when the Liberals took over: some modicum of labour peace was achieved by throwing money at the situation. That path was treacherous. The funds came with no real accountability, so the education system got no better – some would argue it worsened – even as teachers and administrators enriched themselves.
Later in its tenure, the Liberal government felt the wrath of the very same teachers with short memories as it realized its spending wasn’t sustainable.
The education budget, however, never increases at a pace suitable for teachers looking for more, always more. That their ranks grow even as enrolment drops and many dubious changes have been made – class sizes, for instance – simply to artificially inflate the number of jobs has been forgotten in the spirit of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?
Nobody in this struggle is wholly at fault or wholly blameless.
Typically, governments argue they are trying to control costs and introduce more public accountability. But their actions are usually more about politics than altruism.
The teachers argue they are trying to preserve quality in the schools. But saving jobs and boosting working conditions are the purview of their unions.
Really, governments should have set the terms right from the beginning, reigning in spending on costs not of benefit to the public and focusing on classroom improvements such as technology that would help achieve higher educational standards. Ontarians got just the opposite, and we’re all suffering for it today.