Apparently, we're at war.
On January 3, 2013, Ontario's Liberal government imposed a contract on its teachers under Bill 115. Teachers had been asking to participate in the process of collectively bargaining the Provincial framework for their new contract. The then-leadership said no: bargaining could only take place at the local level, and the Provincial parameters would not be touched. After all, the Catholic teachers' union "accepted" the conditions. The government said the unions wouldn't bargain (at the local level); the unions said the government wouldn't bargain (at the Provincial level). Then the Premier resigned and the new leadership recognized the need to change the tenor of the discussions.
Recently, Premier Wynne and Minister Sandals and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation made minor tweaks to the imposed contract, ones that address a few issues of concern to teachers and cost the government the same as the original imposed deal. Now, Tory MPP and Finance Critic Peter Shurman has proclaimed to the legislature that the Liberal government "caved in to labour terrorism."
Look out, Ontario workers: asking to discuss conditions of your employment -- even in a cost-equivalent way -- is now akin to killing and maiming innocent people, blowing up buildings and cars, and traumatizing the world. And asking to not have something you were given in a previous contract taken away makes you an evil-doer. We've seen some pretty formidable teacher bashing over the past year even without such insidious and incendiary rhetoric in the legislature. Words and definitions matter, and over several years of judging competitive debates, I've seen kids run the This House would not negotiate with terrorists case dozens of times. No one has ever defined "terrorists" as "law-abiding skilled professionals looking to discuss terms of employment in a cost-equivalent manner."
One of the manifestations of the recent surge of misplaced anger over misunderstood public sector compensation has been "teacher bashing." To the teacher basher, everything is the fault of those who have more, are perceived to have more, or are perceived to have more than they deserve. And anyone who has more (or seems to have more) couldn't possibly deserve what they have because we all work hard. It's easy to see how people come to this conclusion: they have gripes about their own employers; they remember a teacher they didn't like in high school; they're being told that teachers are spoiled; and the mainstream media are only too happy to stoke the fires and validate the ire. After all, people come back for more when they feel supported and understood, even if what they're being told isn't true. For example, we never asked for more; arguing against significantly less is not the same as arguing for more. We're not greedy (at least, not as a group), and we're certainly not terrorists, and neither are our union's representatives.
Many private sector workers should be frustrated with inadequate wages, overwork, and other alarming trends in their industries, but that frustration should not be directed at public sector workers. Changes in trade, globalization, and technology are changing the economy, mostly making life more strenuous for all but the extremely wealthy. This new economy is not the fault of teachers or other public sector workers. Teachers' salaries are a drop in the Province's bucket, and entirely disconnected from the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs.
Consider: The Dow Jones just hit its highest mark in history. Canada's banks reported quarterly profits that, when added together, amount to half the entire Provincial deficit of $12 billion. That's twice the deficit in one year, for those keeping score -- and that's just profit.
Many private sector employees are losing their jobs and getting paid less, as are teachers. The fact of the former doesn't justify the latter. The Toronto District School Board alone is cutting over 500 allegedly tenured jobs in the next few years -- this after approximately 200 per year for the last two years. Further, Bill 115 and the imposed contract contained therein represented a substantial hit to every facet of teachers' compensation packages, and now the focus is shifting from teachers to other public sector workers.
It seems clear that in many ways, everyone in the public and private sectors is getting squeezed. Racing to the bottom by eroding the middle class is not only unethical, but economically destructive in way that honouring a commitment to pay out some banked sick days is not. I am not a union mouthpiece by any means, but to suggest that unions are to blame for precarious employment is to fundamentally misunderstand the structure of labour. Unions protect people -- in the case of teachers, those on whom our children rely -- from precarious employment. So, economically speaking, why not raise the floor instead of lowering the ceiling? Disposable income in the middle class makes the economy work.
Contrary to what a variety of columnists and MPPs would have you believe, the public sector is not the enemy. You are the public, and your servants want to serve you in exchange for appropriate compensation and benefits. MPPs are also public servants who want to serve you in exchange for appropriate compensation and benefits. So to the Government and Opposition I say this: language matters. We are not terrorists. And you're either with us or against us.
A full version of this article appears on educateforgood.com, where you can sign up for e-mail notifications of new posts by Misha Abarbanel.