Teachers in Ontario combat “climate change for unions”

Understatement #1: these are difficult times for unions.

Governments at nearly every level are wrestling with intractable deficits. Sooner or later, the temptation (the necessity?) of containing costs for unionized labor and contractual benefits comes up.

As a result, hard-fought gains are at risk. Old alliances seem shaky. Good, middle-class jobs stand threatened. Even the bedrock of collective bargaining is endangered.

Understatement #2: public attitudes on this issue are sharply divided.

Depending on one’s position on unions, recent trends can be welcomed as  “well, it’s about time.”

Ontario union advocates are using this graphic, adapted from popular cinema, to promote their cause.

That view argues unions became self-serving, carving out too-cosy alliances to trade votes for cushy perks – seldom matched by private sector employment. From that perspective, the situation demands retrenchment: the money well is dry and other needs are equally pressing.

Discussing Ottawa’s one-day teacher strike via email, news director Martha Foley likened this new environment to “climate change for unions”. A good analogy, I’d say.

This week Michigan – a state where unions once felt very much at home – passed right-to-work legislation in a maelstrom of bitter demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.

Here in Canada, in recent years the ruling Conservative Party has interceded in several labor disputes – putting union action aside in the name of protecting a fragile economic recovery. The Financial Post quoted Queen’s University industrial relations professor George Smith thusly:

“The feds are players as opposed to overseers in this process,” he said. “This whole thing is a continued perversion of the normal collective bargaining process.”

Unions in Canada have long had a better relationship with the Liberal Party – and an even warmer one with the New Democratic Party (NDP).

So, when the Ontario provincial government, under Liberal Primer Dalton McGuinty, seemingly turned on teachers there was – and is – a profound sense of shock and betrayal in labor circles. After all, McGuinty’s wife is herself an elementary school teacher.

By the way, there’s a whole slew of different school systems and unions in Ontario: public English, public French. Catholic English, Catholic French, often divided into elementary or high school level too.  According to this CBC summary:

Catholic and Francophone teachers’ unions (about 55,000 of the total 125,000 Ontario teachers) reached an agreement in the summer. English public elementary and secondary school teachers walked away from negotiations with the province.

The provincial government expects the English public school teachers to reach agreements with the same terms and conditions as the Francophone and Catholic teachers.

The flash point for all of the factions is something called Bill 115, full name “Bill 115, Putting Students First Act, 2012” Quoting from the bill’s preamble:

Public sector compensation costs, which include compensation costs in the publicly funded school system, comprise a substantial portion of government spending. The Government believes that without effective management of these costs, the Province’s ability to continue to invest in high-quality public education will be threatened.

The language goes on

The Government is concerned that without the measures set out in this Act, school boards and employee bargaining agents may not be able to achieve collective bargaining outcomes that protect the Government’s initiatives for students and preserve jobs.

The Government believes that the public interest requires the adoption, on an exceptional and temporary basis, of the measures set out in this Act, as well as the making of amendments to the Education Act, both of which seek to respect the collective bargaining process, to encourage responsible bargaining and to ensure that collective agreements and individual employment contracts contain appropriate restraints on compensation.

Translation: if agreement cannot be reached by the (formerly) usual methods …well, the province will simply dictate a settlement. Striking would still (theoretically) be permitted. But the net effect would also control strikes, because Bill 115 gives the provincial cabinet the power to enact back-to-work measures – without debate in the legislature. (Which is currently prorogued – but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)

This power shift is why teachers in some of Ontario’s public schools are now participating in rolling, one-day strike actions. (Here’s a longer FAQ on Bill 115 and this year’s timeline of union negotiations by Shawne McKeown, CityNews.ca)

Today it’s Ottawa’s turn for a one-day shut down of the Ottawa-Carleton public elementary schools.

The path of contract negotiations is long and detailed. A short version is this: a new contract must be reached by the end of this year. Teacher’s unions consider the government’s current proposals  (and Bill 115) unacceptable. After Dec 31st, the province can invoke Bill 115.

Someone has to blink. Or create a new bargaining atmosphere. Which isn’t happening yet.

Other unions are watching, with great concern. Here’s a sampling of anti-McGuinty feeling from Gary Fenn:

Bill 115 has nothing to do with students, and everything to do with making the education workers of Ontario pay for a recession that they did not cause.  It is about making education workers pay for the cuts to corporate taxes that have not stimulated the economy.  And now, it has clearly become apparent that it is about taking away the constitutionally protected right to free collective bargaining.

In short, if the Ontario government can do this to education workers, then it can do it to any worker.

Teachers began signaling their displeasure by withholding support for extra-curricular activities, things like after-school sports and clubs. This, of course, exacerbates complaints that students are the losers in this quarrel.

In Ottawa a side scuffle of sorts emerged when at least one teacher insisted that no one controls her off-work choices, period. And if she wants to keep her high school’s ski club going, she has that right. As quoted by the Ottawa Citizen:

“It’s my volunteer time, it’s my free time, and I will choose how I want to use it,” said Caroline Orchard, who retired in 2011 after 36 years as a math teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School but still fills in as a supply teacher. “Neither the union nor the board can tell me what to do with it.”

As a parent who loved ski club when our son was younger, I just want to say a big thank-you to teachers like Caroline Orchard.

As a parent who was impressed by the quality of public education in Ottawa after moving here in 1999, I say it’s very, very important for teachers to feel appreciated and supported.

And yet, as a taxpayer, I also agree that the coffers are empty. Solving that problem may pinch everyone’s toes.

The old models may not serve anymore, but the new ones are still uninvented.

How do you see this? Respectful thoughts and comments are always welcome.


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40 Comments on “Teachers in Ontario combat “climate change for unions””

  1. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    I can’t speak to Canadian issues, not my country. But I think the issue ere in the states is kind of muddled. On one hand you have the retired public employees who are portrayed as leeches sucking off the poor taxpayer, people whose pensions are actually on the proposed chopping block according to some reports. Then you have the public employees unions and their current members that, I have to admit, sometimes appear to be more than a lot unreasonable. Look in the other direction and you have the private sector employees and their unions who, as of late especially, appear to be more like 1920’s strike breakers than responsible adults attempting to negotiate a reasonable wage. To me, it’s become little more than political/emotional theater. I don’t think a retired person, private or public, should simply lose their pension. They performed their end of the bargain, the pension should be paid. But I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for people to expect contracts to change, benefits to change, wages to change. I certainly don’t think resorting to violence like we saw in Michigan this week is at all proper. “SEIU thug” gives you a half million google results. There shouldn’t even be one.

    Times are changing. The pot of gold is empty. Workers have a responsibility to the public just as their companies or public sector employers do. It’s not right for the worker to shut down a business any more than it’s right for an employer to run the business into the ground. Everyone gets hurt that way and no good is done. The company/municipality isn’t always going to get more and more and more and neither is the worker. Cutting your nose off to spite your face doesn’t end well as my grandmother would say.

  2. Walker says:

    Larry, I did Google “SEIU thug.” Did you try looking at some of those half a million hits?

    Here’s one of those hits: SEIU Thug Gives Instruction on Economic Terrorism and Co-opting Tea Party. What do you think? Thug?

    And a number of those hits are from sites disputing the accounts that are all over the web. Here’s an SEIU page.

    After checking out a number of links, it looks to me like a major tempest in a teapot. Has SEIU gone too far in some demonstrations? Probably. Thugs? I don’t see it.

    What do you think?

  3. Walker says:

    Sorry, Arlo, don’t know why I addressed that to Larry.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    If the pot of gold is empty, then why are the rich getting richer?
    If you know anything about the history of labor relations, you should know that what happened “in Michigan this week” was inevitable.
    There are those in business and government who would like to see the return of the good old days before there were unions. They would like to dumb down workers to the point where American workers can compete with Chinese workers by the simple method of being paid less than workers in China.
    If you think that can’t happen, you are wrong.
    Did some of the unions push too hard and gain too much? Yes but consider who gave in and why? It was easy for the automakers to give in because they raised prices and didn’t put the money into R&D as they should have. They simply didn’t care and why would they when their incomes were growing faster than their employees.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    There are two issues. Unions support democrats, so republicans try to disable the unions. The unions that are still standing are primarily the public employee unions and they are being demonized. Simple politics. The other is economics, where reducing wages is thought (hoped) to have an economic benefit. Maybe more jobs for more people, but at a lower wage. I dont think it is working out that way. It results in lower wages and bigger profits, but not in more jobs.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    But should teachers be paid less because people want to pay lower taxes?

  7. The Original Larry says:

    “But should teachers be paid less because people want to pay lower taxes?”

    Why not? They are public employees and should be paid what the public wants them to be paid. Unions became what they are in response to inequities that needed to be addressed. We have now a different set of circumstances that require a different approach. I don’t blame unions for trying to hold on to what they have, but change is inevitable.

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – there is also the issue of educating children. You want to have good teachers. Demonizing them because you think teachers arent worth very much seems like it will lead to bad things for the children. Everybody wants to pay lower taxes but you get what you pay for.

  9. The Original Larry says:

    Peter Hahn,
    Don’t accuse me of demonizing teachers until you see me do it. Overpaying does not get you good teachers nor does it get you quality education. If it did, we would not be producing the functionally illiterate “graduates” we currently are. There’s a problem all right, but it isn’t lack of money. We are most certainly not getting what we are paying for.

  10. Pete Klein says:

    To a great extent we have “functionally illiterate graduates” because we have functionally illiterate parents.

  11. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – I didnt say you were demonizing them and I am not aware of your having done so. Others are though.

  12. Peter Hahn says:

    Pete Klein point that it is the parents who, in the case of children not doing well, who are largely at fault. Teachers can only do so much. Someone has to make the kids do their homework and show up for class. Someone has to get the kids to take pride in their academic accomplishments. That usually falls to the parents, although occasionally other mentors can substitute.

  13. The Original Larry says:

    The literacy of parents has nothing to do with it. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries public schools in cities took the children of immigrants with no English language skills whatsoever and turned them into the well educated people who built the modern USA. Rural public schools did the same for the children of illiterate farmers and country people. Many of those parents, especially the immigrants, did not value education the way we do now. That came later, from the first generation to be educated.

  14. Zeke says:

    “The literacy of parents has nothing to do with it.” OMG

  15. The Original Larry says:

    Do you disagree with what I said?

  16. Paul says:

    This one is a classic:


    This is from our friends over at MSNBC, that many here were defending as journalists.

    I love this part:

    “But one eyewitness tells MSNBC.com he thinks there may be more to the story. Thomas Duckworth, a Michigan resident and lifelong union member, said he’d been at the AFP tent earlier in the day, when he noticed a man in an NRA hat. Later, he said, he saw the man deliberately loosening the ropes holding the tent up. Duckworth acknowledged that labor supporters had cheered the tent’s collapse, but suggested that AFP had deliberately helped initiate the it, in order to depict their adversaries as an unruly mob.”

    Well there you go. You have your one eye witness (lifelong union member) this story must be accurate.

  17. Paul says:

    If the guy has a NRA hat on he must be a anti-union guy.

  18. Walker says:

    Paul, I’ll grant you that the “self-sabotage” angle is a stretch, but so is the “Violent Mob Destroys Tent” claim.

  19. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – I am guessing you don’t have any children.

  20. The Original Larry says:

    I don’t. Does that disqualify me from commenting?

  21. mervel says:

    The problem with teachers unions is that they are no longer about classroom teachers. I favor higher classroom teacher wages and more classroom teachers, both things that unions should support, but no what they want are more counselors, more janitors, more secretaries, more special education psychologists and on and on. Teachers unions really are not representing classroom teachers anymore. Education happens according to all studies in one place; the classroom. That is where our emphasis should be, anything NOT in the classroom should be looked at very very hard. Teachers unions are fine their goal is to protect the individuals working for school systems and help them do better in all regards, the job of the taxpayers is to negotiate with them to get the best deal possible. But don’t give me the bogus talk that this is about what is best for the kids, its about jobs and wages and that is OK.

  22. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – it doesn’t disqualify you, but it makes your opinion about the role of parents in the educational process less informed (by personal experience). Feel free to cite some studies supporting your contention that parents don’t play an important role in childhood education.

  23. mervel says:

    Parents are indeed critical. However we can’t ignore the outcomes of school systems, we can’t ignore the fact that some schools outperform others who are serving the exact same type of students and families. Some school systems ARE badly run just like some companies are badly run, some teachers are horrible, just like some employees at other institutions and businesses are horrible. There must be a way and a method to reward the good and get rid of the bad.

  24. Peter Hahn says:

    It would be good if there were a way to get rid of bad teachers. Most parents know who are the good teachers and who are the bad ones. ( although they don’t always agree). Rewarding the good ones might be easier.

  25. Paul says:

    There is an excellent opinion piece on the vote in Michigan in the Washington Post. Below is a link. Here is the crux:

    “Today’s angry protesters demand a return to that norm. Except that it was not a norm but a historical anomaly. America, alone among the great industrial powers, emerged unscathed from World War II. Japan was a cinder, Germany rubble and the allies — beginning with Britain and France — an exhausted shell of their former imperial selves.

    For a generation, America had the run of the world. Then the others recovered. Soon global competition — from Volkswagen to Samsung — began to overtake American industry that was saddled with protected, inflated, relatively uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules.”


    “But there is another factor at play: having a job in the first place. In right-to-work states, the average wage is about 10 percent lower. But in right-to-work states, unemployment also is about 10 percent lower.

    Higher wages or lower unemployment? It is a wrenching choice. Although, you would think that liberals would be more inclined to spread the wealth — i.e., the jobs — around, preferring somewhat lower pay in order to leave fewer fellow workers mired in unemployment.”


  26. Peter Hahn says:

    Paul – they say there isn’t enough data to conclude one way or the other.

  27. mervel says:

    Once again I may not understand. But on these right to work issues, it would seem that if a company is unionized, that means they have a contract with a union it means at some point the majority of employees decided to unionize and that the company recognized them and negotiated with them. Part of that contract would be that employees who are in the collective bargaining unit would have to pay union dues and be members of the union, as a condition of employment, just like a company may make you pay other dues as a condition of employment. So in this case although I am not a big union supporter, I don’t understand the state telling unions and companies what they can negotiate?

  28. The Original Larry says:

    Peter Hahn,
    Feel free to stop jumping to poorly thought out conclusions about whose personal experience is informed or not. I have a great deal of personal experience with the role of parents in education, just not from the perspective of a parent. I don’t guess you thought of that, did you, in your haste to cleverly dismiss what I said? Besides, I never said a word about the role of parents in education; I was talking about the literacy of parents. I guess you missed that part too, in your haste to be clever. What a waste of time.

  29. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Peter, NY had a program, still does AFAIK, called “Excellence in Teaching” pay that was supposed to go to the teachers that excelled. If I remember correctly, now all teachers get it because it was “unfair” tp give the better teachers more money.

    Right to work makes sense to me. If you don’t want to belong to a union, why should you have to? Why should you have to pay dues to a union you don’t belong to?’

    Yes, THUGS is the right word to describe some union members. Destroying a hot dog vendors stand and calling him racial slurs makes you a thug in my book. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/union-thugs-destroy-hot-dog-stand-of-alleged-romney-supporter-in-lansing-and-taunt-him-with-racial-slurs/
    And the amazing double standard by the press that virtually ignores the thugs actions while desperately seeking to lay blame on the right is appalling. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/ready-move-along-media-blackout-of-violent-union-related-rhetoric-reveals-troubling-double-standard/

    Violence by either side is wrong, ignoring ones sides action while demonizing the other sides actions, or outright lying about it, should be criminal in my opinion.

  30. mervel says:

    I think there are two issues. Public unions to me are totally different than private unions organizing freely with companies.

    In the case of private unions, the employees have decided through a voting process to form a union to negotiate with management for a slice of the pie. To me this is what unions are about, this makes sense, companies join together all of the time to be more effective in bargaining better prices. Thus this is a way that labor can negotiate for a larger price to be paid for their services. So if that happens and a contract is made between management and labor, I think it is a private matter between the company and the union if that labor contract says that all employees in this bargaining unit must belong to the union. If you don’t want to work in a union shop don’t work for that company.

  31. mervel says:

    Public unions don’t have that same free give and take in that there is no one to negotiate with on the management side, in fact the management side may have been put there through the force of the unions. There is a basic conflict of interest, it also explains why public unions are the most common and powerful unions.

    I think the country would be better of if we had a stronger more vibrant private union sector. Unions are part of the free market.

  32. Peter Hahn says:

    Arlo – at present no one has to join a Union. The issue is union dues. At present, as Mervel points out, anyone getting union benefits has to pay union dues whether they are a member of the union or not. The right to work law says that anyone who doesnt want to pay union dues doesnt have to – they are voluntary. Which means many people will choose to no pay dues because they get the benefits anyway and sooner or later the unions will have a lot less money and be a lot weaker. They wont be able to negotiate the same contracts, and wages and benefits will go down. They also wont be able to support Democrats (in the US) as they do now.

  33. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry – I was referring to your statement “Overpaying does not get you good teachers nor does it get you quality education. If it did, we would not be producing the functionally illiterate “graduates” we currently are.”

    I am not disagreeing with your claim the illiterate parents can be responsible parents who make sure their children get a good education. What I am saying is that frequently (but not always) when a child is doing poorly at school, there is a problem at home involving lack of supervision for any number of reasons.

    I am not sure you want the school taking responsibility for that.

  34. Paul says:

    “Paul, I’ll grant you that the “self-sabotage” angle is a stretch, but so is the “Violent Mob Destroys Tent” claim.”

    I agree.

    Also, there are many many NRA members that belong to unions.

  35. mervel says:

    Peter is right, and why do they have to pay union dues? They have to pay union dues because that is the contract that has been freely negotiated between management and labor at this company. Right to work almost seems like government intrusion to me.

  36. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Peter, if the people choose not to pay dues and the union gets weaker and can’t negotiate a good contract, then it will be up to the people as to if they want to join the union, pay dues and get a better contract, if a stronger union really does mean a better contract which I think is debatable.

    I used to work where I had to belong to the union. They automatically got my dues and issued me a card. They were the most corrupt, useless bunch of crooks I ever saw. Why should I have been forced to pay their salaries?

  37. Peter Hahn says:

    Arlo – because you got union benefits, and it was in the contract that you would pay dues.

    voluntary union dues works as well as voluntary taxes.

  38. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I’ve worked in union and in non-union companies. In the non-union ones, people weren’t paid as well, had worse health-care, and had no protection from being fired or having their job description change radically from the whims of their boss. Unions aren’t perfect, no institution is, but they play a role in protecting the people who are members. If it weren’t for unions, the people who are in unions now would have worse pay and less protection than they do. Do you think companies treat their workers fairly because they like them? No, they do it because they have to. The agenda of weakening unions has everything to do with bosses wanting to be able to treat and pay their workers exactly how they want, without any organized employee voice to argue with them.

  39. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    You don’t have to have a union to have fair wages and bennies. And you shouldn’t have to pay for something you don’t want. And above all, you shouldn’t be unable to work simply because you don’t belong to a union. That’s called extortion.

  40. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I agree, it would be nice if we lived in a world where employers always treated their employees well out of the goodness of their hearts. Unfortunately, we don’t. None of the modest protections and benefits we have today — the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, vacations, unemployment insurance — came without organized labor fighting long and hard for it. And unions continue to protect workers’ interests today. If it weren’t for them, who’d be left contributing to campaigns and setting policy? The corporations whose interest it is to get as much out of us for as little as possible, that’s who. If you want to have political influence and protection, you need a group powerful enough to provide that. You disagree? Go to Congress all by your lonesome and start lobbying, see how far you get.

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