St. Marys Journal Argus editorial
The passage of Bill 115 by the Ontario Legislature put the province’s teachers’ union leaders in the fight of their lives. The proposed Protecting Public Services Act would force the leaders of other civil service unions to join them.
By imposing wage freezes, prohibiting strikes or other labour actions, and limiting the effectiveness of arbitrators, the two pieces of legislation clearly have the same aims. The high-stakes wager being played by the ruling minority Liberals is that the rank-and-file membership of all these unions will take heed of what appears to be strong voter support for scaling back on public sector salaries, and fail to give their leadership the mandate to fight back against what are clearly draconian and, quite possibly, constitutionally indefensible limitations.
Some signs hint that the strategy isn’t working. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) secured a strike mandate of over 90 per cent in votes last week; similar support has been garnered in various locals of the elementary teachers’ union.
On by-election night last month, the undisputed winners were the New Democrats, who captured the seat in Kitchener thanks to a strong campaign from a former school board trustee who repeatedly challenged the government’s decision to move into a showdown with teachers. It was identified by many as the issue that decided the vote.
On the other hand, however, there are other signs suggesting the government’s divide-and-conquer approach (make the union leadership so mad that they immediately begin making overt comments about labour actions — thereby making rank-and-file members in devoutly anti-union parts of the province distance themselves from public displeasure) has been effective.
Extra-curricular activities for students have been curtailed in certain parts of the province, but those have tended to be in the largest school boards, such as Toronto and Thames Valley. In those areas, people who are sympathetic to labour causes have an easier time getting their voices heard in the public consciousness, and there’s less concern that teachers will be accused of not doing their part to slay the provincial deficit.
Here in Huron and Perth, as evidenced by the letter from Garnet Bloomfield in this week’s Journal Argus (okay, so Bloomfield’s actually from the Thames Valley board. And he’s a former Reform Party electoral hopeful. Nonetheless, the viewpoint he represents is certainly not uncommon), supporters of labour have a tougher time getting their message across. Is it any coincidence, then, that teachers here have not withheld their non-essential services to the extent that extra-curricular activities have been affected?
The strike votes, meanwhile, mean nothing. Teachers don’t intend to strike, and Bill 115 bans strikes.
So what’s the point of the OSSTF sending out news releases boasting about their 92 per cent member support?
What should be happening is that all affected teachers should be playing from the same strategy book, no matter where they’re employed in the province. Strong provincial union leadership should be sending the message to strong local union leadership, that if teachers don’t want to have Bill 115 forced down their throats, they need to act as one. It’s what unions are for.
Now, with the potential passage of the Protecting Public Services Act, the rest of the public sector unions need to get on board as well. Sure, their leadership has been supportive of the teachers’ fight so far, but the spectacle of thousands of public sector employees from various unions converging on Queen’s Park en masse has not occurred.
And what about teachers in this part of Ontario, leery of being accused of not doing their part to slay the deficit? Given the NDP’s success in the Kitchener by-election, there’s a chance that risk has been over-estimated. Perhaps there’s more support out there than teachers think.
Certainly, there’s a very good chance the unions have constitutional law on their side. And without question, history has shown that if workers can’t unite, the divide and conquer approach is a sure winner.