Jan Wong: The province’s shrewd but savage strategy to stick it to Ontario’s teachers

Jan Wong: The province’s shrewd but savage strategy to stick it to Ontario’s teachers

By Jan Wong | Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Jan Wong: Strike Out
(Photographs: Demonstrators by Aaron Vincent; Kathleen Wynne by CP Images)

The school year is coming to a close, and not a moment too soon. It’s been an ugly one. Queen’s Park forced new labour contracts onto Ontario’s teacher unions. Teachers fought back by scrubbing extracurriculars for the better part of the year. And many tax-paying parents are incensed that their kids got shafted in the bargain.

The public mood is decidedly against teachers, whose demands seem ludicrous in this age of austerity. They have a pretty sweet deal. In 2012, the average teacher salary in Ontario was $83,500, and the highest paid earned $95,000. Until Queen’s Park imposed a new contract, teachers were also guaranteed 20 sick days a year, which could be carried over each year, bankable up to 200 days. Most teachers cashed them in at retirement. The province would cut them a cheque for the value of their banked days, to a maximum of $46,000. Almost everyone got the maximum.

In addition, teachers had a salary grid with a five per cent annual raise for each of their first 10 years on the job. So a new teacher earning $39,000 would be making more than $60,000 within a decade. Who in 2013 gets bankable sick days and 10 years of guaranteed raises? Such terms, negotiated in fat times, seem fiscally reckless as Ontario faces down a $12-billion deficit.

But Queen’s Park abused the negotiating process and blindsided the unions at every turn, launching an aggressive-to-the-point-of-hostile pre-emptive attack against job action. Normally, when teachers’ contracts are about to expire, the unions and the Ministry of Education dance to a familiar tune: they sit down at the table, both sides give a little bit, and then—voila!—a slight pay increase, a new four-year contract and labour peace. This time the music stopped, and, without warning, one partner suddenly flipped the other over, jiu jitsu style.

Here’s how it went down: negotiators for Ontario’s four main teachers’ unions arrived at the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street in February 2012 anticipating talks with the usual team from the ministry. Instead, there were three guys from the high-priced firm of McCarthy Tétrault, including James Farley, an insolvency specialist and a former Ontario Superior Court Justice. The lawyers announced the government’s new agenda: blowing up two Holy Grail clauses—bankable sick days and the fabled salary grid. One by one the unions pulled out, leaving just the English Catholic teachers at the negotiating table.

As the clock ticked down to the expiration of the old contracts, the government softened its stance. The ministry, which had threatened to reduce annual paid sick days to six, boosted it to 11 (though they wouldn’t be bankable) and backed down on nuking the salary grid. And the teachers gained some perks, including improved maternity leave policies. But the ministry insisted on a two-year pay freeze. By July, the English Catholic teachers had signed the government’s proffered two-year contract. A month later, the French Catholic and French public teachers’ union signed, too. But the two biggest teachers’ unions, public elementary teachers and secondary teachers, wouldn’t budge. And they represent the overwhelming majority of teachers—126,000 out of a total of 170,000.

In late August, Dalton McGuinty, once known as the “Education Premier,” pulled out ready-to-go legislation that must have been months in the making. Bill 115 passed swiftly with support from the Conservatives. Craftily, the Liberals set a deadline of December 31, after which the agreement established with the English-Catholic union would be imposed on the others. The bill’s name, “Putting Students First,” was an Orwellian touch. Bill 115 amputated teachers’ right to strike through a Catch-22 provision. Strikes are never legal once a contract is in place, the theory being that each side has already agreed to the terms. By imposing a contract, Queen’s Park ensured that any strike after December 31 would be illegal.

When the public elementary teachers decided to launch what they called a political protest—essentially a one-day strike under another name—the government had anticipated that, too. Embedded inside Bill 115 was a clause barring the Ontario Labour Relations Board from considering the Ontario Human Rights Code when determining the legality of a teachers’ strike. So not only could they not strike, they were denied the best and most obvious argument against making striking illegal. In response to the looming one-day protest, the government rushed to the labour board, which had no choice but to rule that the protests were in fact against the law.

Then, on January 23, four months after introducing the bill, the government repealed it. Laurel Broten, who was then the education minister, claimed this was an attempt to repair relations with the teachers. But it was an empty PR move. Bill 115 had already achieved its purpose—nixing those bankable sick days and freezing salaries. Tellingly, even the repealing had been premeditated; Bill 115 included a clause that allowed for cabinet to with­draw it without the legislation sitting.

A group of union leaders have since launched a legal challenge with the Ontario Superior Court accusing the government of violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in denying the right to collective bargaining. The teachers and the government will be in a dizzying legal battle for years to come.

In the end, the government says it saved a gratifying $1.1 billion by eliminating bankable sick days, while the pay freeze will save another $250 million in 2012–2013, ballooning to $540 million by 2014 for a grand savings of $1.89 billion. That’s a lot of money. But at what cost did we obtain these savings? Study after study shows that unless teachers are happy, motivated and respected, you won’t get good teaching. And a good education is inextricably linked with innovation, a quality work force, a strong economy and the ability to compete in a globalized world.

For nearly a decade, as McGuinty sought to mend fences after the Mike Harris years, reading and math scores improved steadily. By going all Machiavellian, the government squandered a reservoir of goodwill within a few short months. Premier Kathleen Wynne, the former education minister and once pro-teacher school board trustee, was not prepared to undo McGuinty’s dirty work, but she has been mopping up the mess since she took his job. Although Bill 115 is gone, once someone smashes you over the head with a hammer, you never forget it, even if they hide the weapon. Queen’s Park exchanged short-term gain for long-term pain. If you don’t believe me, just wait till 2014, when this ill-gotten contract expires and everyone returns to the negotiating table spoiling for a fight.