The beginning of the school year should be a time of great optimism and excitement for teachers. We're energized by seeing our colleagues again and excited to meet the students we'll be teaching for the year. Our thoughts should be focused on making our classrooms more welcoming, our lessons more engaging and our contributions to our school community more meaningful.
Unfortunately, for too many teachers across Canada the positive feelings that normally accompany the beginning of the school year will be overshadowed by more negative sentiments: uncertainty, frustration, anger and above all the feeling of being profoundly disrespected.
Nowhere is this more true than in BC. The province's teachers have been on the picket line since the spring as part of the latest chapter in an exasperating decades-long struggle with the province's Liberal government. The bad faith demonstrated by the government over the course of this struggle boggles the mind. While the media wants to malign BC teachers as greedy, the heart of this dispute has always been about protecting quality of education for students by reducing class size. After teachers gave up salary concessions in the nineties in order to win class-size reductions (greedy bastards!) the BC Liberals went on to unilaterally remove these provisions from their contract in 2002.
This has since resulted in not one but two Supreme Court rulings ordering the government to restore the class-size provisions, both of which it has promptly ignored. The most recent of these rulings — which is now being appealed — stated explicitly that "the government did not act in good faith" and that it had essentially attempted to provoke a strike in order to justify back-to-work legislation.
To say that BC's teachers are beginning this school year feeling frustrated and disrespected is an understatement.
Nor are Alberta's teachers feeling particularly respected by their government these days. After a 2013 contract offer failed to receive the approval of all union locals, Alberta's Progressive Conservative government moved to impose a contract that included a three-year wage freeze. At the time many teachers were placated by the fact that the government was claiming to "lead by example" by imposing an identical three-year freeze on senior civil servants earning more than $275,000. One can imagine then the sense of betrayal teachers must be feeling now that the government has quietly decided to replace its own wage freeze with a 7 per cent wage increase (over three years) just one year after it was implemented. However, the freeze of teachers' wages remains firmly in place. As is so often the case, austerity is for the common people, not the rich.
With their last contract having expired over a year ago, the teachers of Saskatchewan are returning to a situation of uncertainty. After rejecting en masse two offers from the government, their hopes are now pinned on a non-binding process of conciliation. But it’s not just the two inadequate contract offers that have left Saskatchewan teachers with bitter feelings. In recent years the ruling Saskatchewan Party has shown utter contempt for teachers' labour rights, making unilateral increases to the number of hours teachers must work and forcing them to resort to the courts to have their right to strike respected.
The anger of teachers in Ontario is also simmering near the boiling point as Liberal Premier Wynne discovered when she was given an earful by Ontario's elementary teachers at their convention this summer. For many teachers, the bitter memories of Bill 115 are still fresh. In 2012 this bill imposed a contract on Ontario teachers involving a three-year salary freeze, a 1.5 per cent pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days, a major reduction in the number of sick days allotted to teachers each year, a clawback of the sick days teachers had banked and limits on the right of teachers to strike. The bill also featured a clause preventing its constitutionality from being challenged. Teachers felt that the McGuinty government had negotiated in bad faith knowing all along it would eventually use legislation to impose the contract it wanted. Though Premier Wynne has struck a more conciliatory tone than her predecessor (she repealed Bill 115 while leaving the contract it imposed in place), she is also making it clear that her priority is to ensure spending doesn't increase. All this to say that the possibility of another tumultuous year for Ontario teachers is very real.
Teachers in Quebec are returning to both budget cuts and the prospect of facing a newly elected and austerity-mad Liberal government in contract negotiations later this year. The first Liberal budget featured another round of cuts, adding to the pain inflicted by the previous Parti Québécois government. Initially the government claimed that these cuts would target school board bureaucracy, but when news broke this week that in fact school library budgets would be hit, Quebec's education minister was quoted as saying, "No child will die or stop reading because of fewer books in school libraries." Services to students with special needs will also inevitably be hit by these cuts.
Meanwhile the Liberal budget left the generous subsidies for wealthy families to send their children to elite private schools untouched. There will be no shortage of books in such schools, where students with special needs tend to be filtered out by entrance exams. Again, austerity is for the common people.
As Quebec's teachers return to schools with fewer books and less support staff they must also contemplate the prospect of going into negotiations with a government hell-bent on cutting $3.9 billion from its budget this year alone. The memory of 2005, when Quebec's Liberal government imposed a contract with draconian back-to-work legislation, has not been forgotten by teachers. Nor have they forgotten that the central issue of that strike — support for students with special needs — remains unresolved. A tumultuous year for Quebec's teachers seems all but certain.
The above picture is a grim one indeed, particularly when one considers that the provinces discussed represent over 80 per cent of Canada's population. Though education is a provincial matter, there is nevertheless a consistent pattern: we seem to have become a country that is incapable of dealing with our teachers in good faith. Our modus operandi is to stall at the negotiating table, wait for work action to cause public disruption, then bring in legislation that essentially dictates a new contract. Those we entrust with our children we reward with deception, stall tactics, draconian legislation, ever-eroding work conditions and ultimately the burden of paying for whatever tax cuts the party in power promised in order to get elected.
It is worth noting that in province after province teachers' unions have consistently sacrificed salary demands at the bargaining table in order to win concessions that improve the quality of education. This is what the bad unions have done to earn the scorn of our elected representatives: advocate for things like smaller class sizes and more support for students with special needs. They are ultimately standing up for the learning conditions of our children, something our politicians have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of doing.
How we got to this sad state of affairs is both a story of ideological commitment to 'small government' and electoral opportunism. When the economy is growing our leaders promise tax cuts that rob government of its fiscal capacity. In Quebec for example since 2000 Liberal and PQ governments have combined to implement close to $12 billion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich. Then when economic growth and government revenues slow down, the bill for those tax cuts is handed to average citizens in the form of austerity measures targeting public services and public sector employees.
As thousands of BC teachers walk the picket lines and thousands of others in Ontario and Quebec contemplate doing the same, the question for all of us to consider is how much further down this road do we as a society want to travel. Do we really believe that we are improving our society by driving those we entrust with our children into a semi-permanent state of frustration, alienation and exhaustion? The same question could be posed with respect to those we entrust to care for our sick and elderly. Rather than directing our rage against the workers we all rely on and their unions, should we not be directing it against the tax cuts from which only the wealthiest among us have significantly benefited?
Teachers spend an enormous amount of time patiently talking to students about the importance of respect. It is time that we as citizens had the same discussion with our elected leaders. Even better, it is time that we as electors abandoned altogether those politicians who are willing to sacrifice public services on the neoliberal altar of tax cuts. It’s time to show public sector workers the decency and respect they deserve.