Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On Unions and Boycotts

The elementary schools in our board have decided to boycott the local paper because one columnist has been known to take a decidedly negative view of teachers. So a local MPP, Michael Harris, petitioned Sandals, the Education Minister, to... I'm not really sure what he wants her to do. But he wrote her a letter telling on the teachers.

First of all, I'm not in favour of the boycott. I think there are many forms of media, even other local papers, to be use in the classroom, and the kids won't suffer from the boycott. That's not the problem. I don't agree with refusing to listen to dissenting opinions, poorly argued or otherwise, nor do I agree with modelling that behaviour to students. I've exchanged words with this columnist before, and it was certainly in bad taste for her to call teachers "boneheads" who were "using kids as human shields" when we stopped running extra-curriculars to protest a government-imposed contract with clauses that allowed alterations to be made without further negotiations - basically dismantling workers' rights entirely. And it didn't help her cause when that "human shields" line was still hanging in the air a few weeks later during the Sandy Hook shooting. But I'll still read her column - even if only to get my blood pumping in the morning.

If we're going to collectively boycott something in our schools, we should make it something that causes longterm harm to our kids, like cigarettes or bottled water or the mountains of Tim's cups in the trash or single-sided handouts from the board office.

Secondly, what the hell? Is Harris hoping Sandals will tell teachers what they're allowed to read in the classroom? The boycott isn't going to prevent students from learning about local issues. There are few news stories in The Record that can't be found in The Star a day earlier, and kids can read about LRT-induced road closures online. But I'm curious what legislation he's hoping could be imposed to prevent acts from offending him in future.

What's really bugging me, however, is Harris's suggestion that it was inappropriate for the "union to direct its members" thusly. The union doesn't dictate what members do; the union is made up of the members. Decisions are a matter of majority rule after significant discussion among representatives from each school. OSSTF decided against supporting the boycott after a lengthy discussion and a vote by representatives from each school in the region. The union runs in a similar manner to parliament except that union reps have no reason to ignore their constituents in favour of party politics. Reps don't get extra pay to attend meetings, nor are we basking in glory for our efforts. We're voted in but often by acclamation such are the perks.

Suggesting that the union directs members to strike or work-to-rule or boycott is similar to suggesting that our government dictatorially directs the people towards actions beyond their will, but even less the case. For serious issues, like strike votes, members are offered as much information as they can manage, their questions answered in as much depth as possible, and then they vote without any effort to sway them to one side or another. It's an automatic referendum. For smaller issues, the reps vote as a typical MP might vote in the House. If we don't like the decisions the government makes, we can vote them out. And if a member doesn't like the way the union votes on a decision, change is as simple as offering to replace one of your school's reps. Come on down!

Finally, a word on bias. One letter to the editor suggests, "we are all biased in what we think." I've seen bias used in this context increasingly, but there's a difference between an opinion and a biased opinion. A biased opinion is conceived before or outside of facts; it's a prejudiced idea. It presents an argument that leaves out important information, skews details, uses loaded terms, and/or misrepresents idea. We can have a strong opinion for or against something without being biased, without being led by emotionally-driven appeals instead of facts and data. Bias isn't necessarily the case as long as we keep thinking.

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