Why Ontario teachers’ unions may get more than they’re bargaining for

OPINION: Teachers’ unions are making their negotiating demands public. But will the public support them?
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 26, 2019
classroom
The labour situation puts the provincial government in a tricky spot and could complicate the federal election campaign. (iStock.com/imaginima)

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On Wednesday, TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath did his usual fine work when he wrote about the dilemma facing the Ontario government and its ongoing negotiations with the teachers' unions. The situation not only puts the provincial government in a tricky spot, but, as McGrath noted, it also threatens to complicate the ongoing federal-election campaign. The federal Conservatives clearly do not wish to have Ontario controversies intruding into the federal narrative; the federal Liberals, on the other hand, seem gripped by a post-hypnotic need to say “Doug Ford” 47 times a minute. Nothing would intrude quite like a major labour dispute affecting millions of kids and their families. Parents, grandparents, older siblings — all would be inconvenienced if this thing were to develop into a full-blown strike.

I’m in the happy place of not needing to really recap a lot of what the news this week actually was. McGrath has already taken care of that. In extremely short summary, though: the unions are amping up the pressure on the government by revealing their negotiating position publicly, while also simultaneously making a show of being extremely reasonable. They are not seeking big bucks. They’ve asked for inflationary increases in salary. They also want some of the staffing reductions reversed. They’re not just being reasonable — they’re going out of their way to be seen to be reasonable. That's shrewd. Especially given the provincial government's two-fold desire to avoid controversy: they want to avoid torpedoing the federal Conservative campaign, but they’re also continuing to try to turn the page after a punishing first year in office.

Okay. Fair enough. As McGrath notes, this puts the Progressive Conservatives in an awkward spot. But there is one angle that he did not really engage with, one that may leave the government feeling a bit more comfortable. There is a very simple way public negotiations could backfire on teachers: Are they really, really sure the average Ontarian thinks that their position is as reasonable as the teachers clearly believe it is?

I’ve gotten into a habit of making disclosures in my articles here, and I’m afraid I have to make another one: I am married to an elementary-school teacher. She currently teaches at a private school, so she’s not directly involved in this, but there is an undeniable link between the wages and benefits offered to the public-sector teachers and those that private institutions must offer in order to remain competitive. So I do have some skin indirectly in this game. Readers should know that and judge my argument accordingly.

But, with all respect to my wife and her colleagues, a request for an inflationary wage increase on top of an already high wage may not resonate with Ontario voters in quite the same way it did in the union strategy meetings.

I don’t begrudge teachers their high wages. As I noted above, I benefit from it. When my wife worked for nearly a decade at the York Region District School Board, I also benefitted from the fantastic benefits that were offered and from the pleasure of her company during her time off, which amounted to about three times the annual vacation I was entitled to. And that’s before we even get into the issue of the pension plans.

My point is not that teachers are overpaid; I simply note, very politely and neutrally, that when one looks at market comparables for jobs with similar requirements for educational qualifications and workload, teachers are, at the very least, fairly well compensated. There is significant variation among teacher salaries, related to the teacher's specific qualifications and time in service, but, by any standard, it is a reasonably secure, well-compensated position with extremely good benefits.

By making their negotiating position public, the unions are clearly signalling that they believe the public will be on their side. No doubt much of it will be. But it's likely that a large bloc will view a request for any increase, even an inflationary one, as evidence of an already well-off group of people asking millions of people working just as hard for much less to dig a little deeper into their pockets. I never resent anyone asking for more. But I am skeptical that a decisive majority of Ontarians will fall into line behind the teachers on this one.

And — I shall put this very delicately — while teachers are essential (and, in my admittedly limited sample, make for excellent spouses), they are not always their own best spokespeople. Having lived with one for more than a decade, and spent much time around teachers as a result, I would suggest that there can sometimes be a lack of understanding among teachers about how they are viewed by the general public, particularly members of the public who also work hard and find value and fulfilment in their work, but don't enjoy the same compensation and benefits as teachers. (I think I said that politely enough to avoid trouble?)

At the very least, I would expect any prolonged, public dispute to be contentious and divisive, likely generally along party lines. In attempting to apply significant pressure to the government, the teachers could actually find themselves helping the Tories, and perhaps their federal counterparts, shore up support after a year that has seen the Ford government's polling numbers in freefall.

Don’t take any of this as a prediction. If I had to make one, it would be that, as the government has several reasons to wrap these negotiations up peacefully and quickly, it will probably try to do just that. But if that is not possible, and the fight goes public, I’m not sure the government will be quite so alone as the teachers and their negotiators may expect.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ontario teachers were set to begin a work-to-rule campaign as early as Monday. In fact, 55,000 education workers who are members of CUPE will be in a legal strike position on Monday. TVO.org regrets the error.

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