Last fall, I went through my second teachers’ strike in the last eight years—this time, however, as a parent of three children who attend Ontario’s public schools. It was much different—that is, less stressful—than my other strike experience. Back in 1991,1 was a school trustee and chair of our school board’s negotiations with our high school teachers who walked out for six-weeks.
Both strikes have given me cause to consider what has gone wrong with labour relations in Ontario’s publicly funded schools.
At first blush, the classroom looks like the perfect place for a cooperative employer-employee relationship to flourish. After all, there is nearly universal agreement among those involved—teachers, administrators, parents, taxpayers, politicians—that children ought to receive a good education.
Given that common goal, should it not be expected that a high degree of cooperation would follow? How do we understand the current strife and what are its roots?
One obvious clue can be found in the list mentioned in the previous paragraph. In examining the complex relationships among the various players in the education field, one finds conflicting interests that have become more and more difficult to ignore or cooperatively resolve.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the differences in outlook between teachers—meaning the teachers’ unionsÃ¢â‚¬â€and taxpayers over the cost of running the system. Admittedly, there is no direct relationship between these two groups, but taxpayer reaction to skyrocketing education costs in recent years has had a profound effect on labour relations, particularly as politicians responded to taxpayer concerns to curb rising costs.
Therein, as Shakespeare wrote, lies the rub. In the face of very real economic pressures, the fissures in the surface of school labour relations have become painfully visible: unrealistic expectations on the part of teachers’ unions and weak management by school boards and the province.
Developing cooperative labour relations requires relatively equal partners. The “employer” component of the equation is not, for a variety of reasons, on an equal footing with the teacher unions.
I speak from firsthand experience. I spent all of my nine years as a public school trustee on the board committee that handled negotiations with our teachers. One of the things that trustees found most frustrating about their work was the extent to which the teachers’ unions were oblivious to and unconcerned about the cost of their various demands for contract improvements.
The unions would come to the table seeking more staff, higher salaries, and improved benefits. Time and again the board would request the union’s costing of these items, only to find that nothing of the sort had been prepared. Time and again the board would point out the very significant costs of these proposals—and the equally significant property tax hikes to which they would lead—only to be told that this was not the union’s concern or responsibility.
There are, of course, certain rituals that are part and parcel of the collective bargaining process. Posturing at the beginning of each round of bargaining is one of them. But I found that the teachers’ unions were rarely guilty of this—they really did not see cost control as a mutual responsibility.
I don’t think this kind of experience was by any means unique to the board on which I served. Sadly, it reflected the extent to which teachers’ unions had over the years lost touch with fiscal realities resulting in unrealistic expectations about what they could and should achieve at the bargaining table. And it highlighted local boards’ inability to infuse the process with a strong dose of reality.
The first strike to which I referred is an excellent case in point. Today, teachers in our publicly funded schools are reasonably well paid for what they do. They also enjoy good benefits and a fine pension plan. Such was not always the case.
Years ago, before the rise of well-funded group pensions, the teachers major “pension” benefit was a retirement gratuity. This consisted of a lump sum paid out to the teacher based on the number of accumulated unused sick days that the teacher had “banked” by the end of her/his career.
In the bad old days prior to the 1960s when salaries were low, these gratuities were fairly modest. But by the 1990s, teachers with a full sick bank would typically, upon retirement, collect up to $30,000 or more (half of their final year’s salary) as a pay-out, in addition to their pension.
What was once an essential part of a teacher’s retirement “nest egg” had long since become an expensive perk. My board realized this in the 1970s and negotiated a gradual end to the practice by limiting this gratuity to teachers on staff at the time. However, it was one of only about six boards across the province (out of a total of over 140 boards) that had done this before the teacher’s federations told their locals that there were to be no more concessions on this issue.
By 1991, the gratuity had developed into a major contract issue. About half of the high school teachers working for my board had the gratuity and half did not. Newer teachers looked at the situation as being grossly unfair to them. Had they worked for almost any other publicly funded board in the province, they would have been entitled to this very attractive benefit. With that in the forefront of their minds, they took the board to a strike in the fall of 1991.
I still find the air of unreality in all this—please forgive the bad pun—striking. In October 1991, the economy was rapidly slipping into recession. The principal strike issue had nothing to do with the essential economic well-being of teachers and, of course, had even less to do with the welfare or academic achievement of students. It was a pretty obvious case of naked self-interest.
But the critical belief driving the decision to strike—and I would emphasize that this decision came from union headquarters in Toronto—was the belief that management (the school board) would not be able to withstand the pressure of a work stoppage. And much of the fault for that, I believe, lies in a long history of weak management in Ontario’s publicly funded school systems.
Some of management’s weakness certainly lies in the byzantine administrative and political structures used to run Ontario’s education system. For instance, much of the system’s decision-making authority was centralized in the provincial bureaucracy, and the province could do what it wished without bothering to consult the boards. The Peterson government’s sudden, unilateral decision to spend $200 million to reduce primary class sizes in 1988 was an outstanding example of this.
At the same time, the most central labour relations forum—the collective bargaining process—was done solely at the local (board) level with no input from the province (at least, no input until the Social Contract in 1993). With over 140 school boards across the province, the five teachers’ federations had all kinds of openings to pursue their agendas for better pay, perks, and working conditions. The old adage “divide and conquer” describes this situation well.
For many years, the teachers used a simple and highly effective strategy: find those boards that were most willing to accede to their demands and keep the pressure on at the bargaining table until they caved in. Then, with the precedent in place, knock the rest down one by one like dominoes.
School boards were plagued by weaknesses. Each was a David to the Goliath of the big province-wide teachers’ unions. The legislation that governed collective bargaining in the education sector was weighted in favour of the teachers.
Regardless, trustees were often their own worst enemy: they seldom had much stomach for taking a hard line against some of the teachers’ more extravagant demands. Their local ratepayers had “deep pockets” and were not organized to apply strong pressure against free-spending trustees. In those rare cases where a board’s resolve led to a strike, they usually caved in to the teachers’ demands in the face of public anger over children being kept out of school.
In our case, though, the board did prevail in the 1991 strike, with the help of public outrage at the teachers’ demands.
Poisoned labour relations
The Social Contract (1993-1996) and the cuts in provincial grants to local school boards that came with it, brought a sea change in the labour relations environment. In the new era of shrinking financial resources, the choices were pretty stark: either class sizes had to grow or salary and benefit levels had to shrink. The former option was the easy winner!
When the Harris government came to power in 1995, it soon took note of management’s weakness at the local school board level. Bill 160, which brought on last fall’s illegal strike/protest, was the government’s attempt to correct some of the distortions it thought school boards permitted over the years. Its intrusion into the collective bargaining process not unexpectedly drew a furious response from the unions and has badly poisoned labour relations.
To some degree, the parties got what they deserved. From the government’s point of view, though, the question is whether their changes will make the province’s schools better. While Bill 160 does begin to level the playing field, I question whether “big” government negotiating with “big” unions is the answer.
With a poor labour relations climate, positive change will surely be more difficult to achieve. But make no mistake. Change was required. I’ve seen the need first hand.