Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Importance of Workers' Rights

Disclaimer:  I'm not speaking for my school or union or for teachers in general.  The following is my personal view of the situation as a high-school teacher with three kids in school.

Last Thursday, Luisa D'Amato wrote a scathing article about boneheaded teacher action that, in effect, prevents some kids from going on a field trip or two.  Her solution to our turmoil is for everyone to join the Liberal party so we can better influence their decisions.  I responded to her by e-mail, but I'll share it here. Her article in full is at the bottom.

It's an interesting one because our sons were both going to go on a Federal/Provincial simulation game together that was kiboshed by the board's response to sanctions.  So, as moms, we're in the same boat - but sitting at opposite ends.



D'Amato is often pro-teacher, and she advocates such a strange solution, that I wonder if she was required to respond to this letter by Jim Stewart printed the previous Saturday:
....To be accurate it should be entitled “Putting Democratic Rights Last Act forever” and simply denies a segment of our society their freedoms protected in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 
This act provides “wartime”-like power to whatever parties’ “cabinet” (read Education Minister Laurel Broten) that is in power and not to our elected MPPs. 
It can be extended by any “cabinet” from two to six years if she/he feels like it. Any legal challenges to Bill 115 are prevented. So it’s a law that strips our freedom to change or repeal it. 
Furthermore, it gives any Minister of Education unprecedented powers to approve or change any contract negotiated between school boards and an affected union. The act gives Broten, one person, authority over collective agreements that are now governed by labour legislation under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labour. She will have the power to restrict strikes or lockouts as she sees fit. 
I was stunned when I read this. Is this the democratic freedom that was so dearly purchased with the lives and blood of so many of our fallen? No. 
So after reading this legislation I had no alternative but to cancel my membership in the Liberal party in protest, a political party that I have supported for 30 years. I also made sure everyone I could reach in both the provincial and the federal Liberal party heard why....

In case this is news to people (outside of Ontario perhaps), a brief synopsis of the teacher issue: McGuinty's government passed Bill 115 effective September 1st.  It's generally known as the Putting Students First Act, but more honestly sub-titled:  "An act to implement restraint measures in the education sector." It imposes decreasing wages through a salary freeze and a few unpaid days, allowing fewer sick days that don't accumulate, and freezing new teachers on a grid that keeps them at the base pay for three years without compensation.  But most importantly, as Stewart makes clear, it infringes on our democratic rights.

McGuinty's government is painting a picture that we are in crisis financially, and implies we should accept anything we get.  A lot of people have bought in to that rhetoric.  But if things are really so bad, why would he create a new program, full-day kindergarten, that costs $1.5 billion?

Dalton, here's a free business tip (because this is all a business):  When you don't have enough money to pay your workers, don't expand your programs.  You need some foresight if you want your business to work long-term.  But, it doesn't really matter, I guess, if you just want to impress the impressionable and then run away when it starts to fall apart.

AND while all this was going on, they snuck in Regulation 274 which prevents open hiring of new teachers, restricting it to supply teacher seniority.  It means that when we're hiring a new teacher, we have to choose from the five teachers qualified in the area who have been on the supply list the longest.  NOT the five most qualified on the list, but the five on the list longest.  The concern is that we'll no longer get to choose from the best teacher candidates possible. Supply teachers aren't evaluated in our board, so they can range from excellent to weak.

What could happen, by chance, is that if the next five in line for a job are all at the weak end, one of them HAS to be given the job - effectively eroding teacher quality. It's meant to prevent people from hiring their friends and relatives, but that's a big restriction in place to prevent a bit of nepotism.  I know some like the idea because they feel for the supply teachers that are great, but keep being passed over - especially now with so many supply teachers on the books for years. But that problem should be solved differently with more letters of reference influencing the hiring process.

And if you think about it a bit, once a few really weak potential candidates are at the top of the list, they'll stay there forever not being hired until eventually at least four of the five will be the ones no school wants.  And then we're really just down to choosing the best of the worst from that point on.

Anyway, here's my rebuttal:

Hi Luisa, 
I want to clarify a few things from your recent column about teachers.  I’m the teacher at KCI heading up the Fed/Prov simulation that won’t happen this year (and Will's mom). This is such an important issue that I’m hoping you’ll reconsider your views. 
Everybody should be concerned when a government restricts a group’s right to strike. This labour action is not about teachers’ pay as much as it is about a fundamental need for citizens to be able to revolt against an oppressive government. It’s not just for us, but for all workers who need some recourse if their employer makes unreasonable demands. 
Even in a position of “dire financial straits,” the government can, as it typically does, impose limits to spending on the school board, then allow the board and teachers to negotiate a contract that is as fair and equitable as possible. Upper Grand’s proposed agreement, for instance, in which teachers each take one unpaid day a year, is a far better solution than the government’s imposed contract that will freeze teachers on the grid for three years which, in effect, forces the lowest paid workers, who are already struggling to pay off their student debt, to suffer the costs of the government’s poor financial management. These are deals that can be determined amicably within the collective bargaining system. 
Some students are upset that they might not be able to go on that field trip they were really looking forward to, but I think they’d be more upset a few years down the road if labour rights are so eroded that they can’t make enough money to survive. Refusing a right to strike is the first step in a quick slippery slope. We only lose sympathy from the public when they focus on the short-term - their children’s immediate disappointment - rather than the long-term benefits of a healthy workforce with current rights intact. This is particularly a problem when they are led in this direction by media suggestion. But we haven’t and won’t lose all the public support because, as you point out, we make up a substantial amount of the public, and we also have backing from myriad other unionized workers who are crystal clear on the necessity to stand up for worker rights. 
Unions serve teachers, and we voted collectively to do what’s necessary to stop the government’s actions. Individual teachers going against the sanctions are opposing not just the union, but their fellow colleagues. Collective action is the only peaceful means to curtail unreasonable governments. These sanctions are meant to have the least impact possible on students. Instead of stopping extra-curriculars, we stopped taking over absent teachers’ classes. The unfortunate result is that the board shut down field trips, but all other in-school events are running in most school. These sanctions affect students far less than a work-to-rule or a full-on strike position would. We’re doing our best to affect the students the least yet send a strong message to the government that we can’t be knocked down so easily. 
These aren’t boneheaded actions taken by a group of citizens lacking courage, but principled decisions make by educated, caring workers who are willing to be derided publically for the sake of their students’ future. 
And I’m going to keep voting NDP. 
Thanks for your time...

And D'Amato's column that inspired this post:

A little advice for unhappy teachers 
By Luisa D'Amato
Almost every teacher that I know personally is a wonderful individual — generous, kind, hard-working and knowledgeable. 
So how come they can turn into such boneheads when they act as a group? I’m referring to the way that unionized public school teachers are using kids as human shields in their current war with the provincial government. 
I felt sick as I read about a school trip that students at Edna Staebler Public School in Waterloo were looking forward to — and had raised $7,000 for, so that all students could afford it — that now may not happen because of teachers’ job action. Senior students are bitterly disappointed that the four-day trip they’ve planned to Camp Tawingo in Huntsville in February is now “on hold.” 
The teachers are angry at the provincial government because of the Putting Students First Act, which has restricted their right to strike and imposed certain kinds of job conditions on such things as unpaid days off and sick days. The government is doing this because it is in dire financial straits. 
Some local elementary teachers have responded by declining to volunteer for extracurricular activities, like the trip planned for Edna Staebler students. They have also kept report card comments to the bare minimum. 
Secondary school teachers are still running extracurricular activities, but are refusing to do things like take their turn at lunch supervision or substitute for absent colleagues, even though that’s part of what they’re paid to do. 
As a result of that job action, the school board has put a hold on plans for field trips, some sports events, and other special events (such as the federal-provincial simulated conference) that require a teacher to be out of the building during the school day. “We have to be cautious about our commitments in the future,” given the situation, said Mark Schinkel, the board’s executive superintendent for human resources. 
Can’t the teachers see that the worst possible strategy for them is to withhold extracurriculars, or cause them to be withheld? They will only lose what little sympathy the public has for them. 
Once the government figures out that there isn’t any public support for the teachers, it will do whatever it wants. 
Teachers will say they don’t want to hurt the kids, but they have to follow the advice of their unions. Not true. Unions are elected by the teachers, and serve the teachers, not the other way round. 
And extracurricular activities, even though they are an accepted part of the job, are quite clearly marked as volunteer work in teacher contracts. Unions don’t have any control over what their members do as volunteers. So — a little backbone would be nice. 
Meanwhile, refusing to write more than one sentence on a report card comment, or not showing up for lunch supervision, is not doing your job, as far as I’m concerned. And if you’re not doing your job, yet you’re still collecting your paycheque, then you shouldn’t expect public support. 
Teachers, if you want to hit back at the hated legislation which imposed these working conditions on you, I have a more constructive suggestion than taking it out on students and their hard-working parents. 
Why don’t you join the Ontario Liberal Party en masse? 
There are more than 100,000 of you across the province. You’ve got until midnight Friday night to buy your $10 party memberships. By sheer force of numbers, you can then control who gets selected as delegates to the leadership convention, and thus influence who is chosen as the new leader at the end of January. Put your considerable political muscle behind the leadership candidate who is most likely to repeal the law you don’t like and to deal with you in a more respectful manner. 
This is a unique opportunity to do something about the situation you hate. You can help choose the new Ontario Premier, for heaven’s sake. So focus on that. And please, leave our kids out of your line of fire. 
 ldamato@therecord.com


ETA: Some vindication.

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