Friday, January 18, 2013

Blame the Gov't for Chaos in Schools

[Jeff Kanter is a secondary teacher in Ottawa. His letter to colleagues, dated January 15th, is reprinted here with permission]

Dalton McGuinty was recently quoted as saying: “…my sense is that most teachers
want to be in the classroom and they want to be participating in extra curricular
activities”. What a challenge it is not to respond with a resounding “YA THINK?” and
what a classic illustration of politically motivated, disingenuous bafflespeak.

The DUH factor is almost too glaring to even rate comment. Of course teachers
want to be in the classroom (where they have been, almost without exception, since
this whole mess was foisted upon them) and of course they want to be doing the
extras (the withdrawl of which is pretty much the only viable option for them at
this point). Stating what is so obvious, then, becomes a tactic – an attempt to drive
a wedge into the teachers’ ranks. What teachers WANT, Mr McGuinty, is a return
to fair and unimpeded negotiations with their actual employers – the Boards of

The premier really should review his own math sense as well - if he thinks that
the confidential balloting results of approximately 10% who do not necessarily
support strike action is a huge majority. Headlines dutifully proclaiming the so
called ‘education premier’ attempting to teach the teachers a lesson perhaps should
be rewritten with the suggestion that Mr McGuinty might want to re enroll in the
very system he is presently attacking in order to get a more accurate sense of the
real numbers.

And of course, every time the premier speaks, we are faced with the incessant
droning of up – piper Lisa MacLeod, certainly one not to miss a chance of being
quoted somewhere. Her automatic opposition to whatever the premier would
say, while a reflection of the job description of the Opposition, is both a painfully
transparent ploy to pave a path for her own potential political future and, more
importantly, a counterproductive contribution to the situation. Would that she
could contribute something towards a solution (other than trotting out Conservative

Fast-forward to more recent events.

The dust from the most recent dust-up between the province and its teachers (the
day of protest, aborted because of a 4 am OLRB decision) has sort of settled. All
of the various interested parties – students, parents, board trustees, government
representatives, journalists, columnists, editors, talk show hosts, and teachers are
preparing for whatever comes next.

Last minute tactics on the part of the unions and the government resulted in board
officials having to make very last minute adjustments to schools’ operations for

that day and the general consensus was that it was pretty chaotic. Naturally,
that resulted in angry parents who were significantly inconvenienced (including

Teachers do sympathize with those parents (indeed, many teachers were
themselves among those thus inconvenienced). At the same time, it is hoped that
parents of school age kids can take a minute or two to look beyond the problems
associated with school closures and make an effort to see why teachers are so
incensed with bill 115 – despite the minister’s “offer” to repeal it in the near future.

That is not easy to do. Parents who have to scramble to make all sorts of last minute
adjustments while facing unanticipated financial burdens have much right to be
much upset. What teachers could claim, though, is that sounds very much like what
they themselves have been doing lo these many months and certainly what they face
as the effects of bill 115 are more fully realized in the months ahead.

It is also not easy to do because it is just not easy to do. Actually listening to the
other side is a rare talent. And it does not necessarily mean giving up one’s own
beliefs or ideas – just listen to what the other guy’s story is all about. People tend to
cling to a view once they have formed it – often in spite of overwhelming evidence
that that particular view may be flawed or erroneous.

The accepted premise has to be to recognize that the present scenario in education
in Ontario is pretty grim, with no immediate easy solution. To those who snarl that
teachers are overpaid crybaby whiners who have it so much better than everyone
else in the work force need only look as far as the recently resolved NHL lockout:
call the players whatever you wish (or the owners, for that matter); the two sides
still had to hammer out a framework for an agreement, and they did just that,
through continuous though often on and off talks/discussions. To simply label the
players as this or that did not alter the fact that the owners had to keep talking with
them. Of course, it could be suggested that the entire NHL crisis could have easily
been avoided by simply having all the teams moved to Ontario and then just have
their working conditions imposed!

And that points out one of the major sticking points in the present education crisis
– the government never intended to talk or negotiate with the teachers. At the
initial meetings, terms were presented in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. And when
teachers’ unions balked, the government made the ridiculous claim that it was the
teachers holding up the talks. The only thing the teachers were guilty of was not
being willing to meekly accept harsh and unrealistic terms.

Bill 115, therefore, is a major sticking point, for which the offer to repeal (once all its
terms become entrenched) is not a realistic basis for solution.

Union leaders have pretty much been demonized by the province’s spokespeople, as
well as by the media. They are trying to represent hundreds of thousands of people

– not an easy assignment. Given the sheer size and numbers of OSSTF and ETFO,
it has to be recognized that the overall level of support from membership has been
nothing less than exceptional. There will always be vocal opposition (assent is often
much more silent). Who has never occasionally thought a decision made by a parent
or a boss or a group leader has been plain wrong? and then grumbled about it?

Employees try to get the best deal from their employer. The employee generally
operates from the naturally logical assumption that the employer has the means/
resources to pay the agreed upon wage. And when offered a salary, what employee
would respond by suggesting that, gee, maybe the company might not be in good
financial shape in three years so why don’t I ask for a reduction in the salary being
offered? Why would union leaders, who represent the teachers / employees in this,
do any differently?

And now, the employee is being told that everything has changed and that
compensation is being slashed. Employees do occasionally have to face challenging
times. Remember that the opportunity for them to enter into a dialogue with the
employer to figure out the most efficient way to achieve solutions is one of the many
positive accomplishments of unions over the years. Otherwise, the employee has
the first, last, and only say in all aspects connected with the workplace.

But wait. This particular employer has just reduced and removed and eliminated
all manner of compensation and benefits from our erstwhile employee, but
over in another store which the same employer controls, some of the workers
are getting, wait for it, bonuses. Our employee, with justification, is angry. Mr
McGuinty’s recent support for over $20 million for these bonuses is unacceptable
and unsupportable. Out of the other other side of his mouth, he is demanding that
teachers absorb huge contractual losses. What happened to the province’s dire
financial straits when THAT raise was given the premier’s okey-dokey?

What teachers want is the continuation of the right to collectively bargain –
something which Bill 115 eliminates. What teachers want is a return to the
standard practice of negotiation with the province to address all the concerns.

The supreme irony here is that teachers were ready for business as usual for the
Sept 2012 start of the school year. The government brought its hard line approach
to the “bargaining” table and threatened legislation as a means, it claimed, of
avoiding disruptions. Instead of ensuring a smooth school opening (which clearly
would have taken place without the threats and without 115), the only thing this
government achieved was creating the most uncertain unsettled school school year
in a long long time.

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