Over the last six months, as public school teachers squared off against the government, something struck me about my fellow Canadians: We’ve become far too comfortable with the status quo.
As teachers conducted rotating strikes before the Christmas holidays, parents whined all over Facebook. One father of a kindergartener said his child would be “traumatized” by the cancellation of her Christmas pageant. Others questioned how they could work if their children had nowhere to go during the day, and demanded teaching be declared an essential service. The same people then turned around and accused teachers of being lazy, selfish and poor role models.
Frankly, the comments flying around social and mainstream media about teachers have been nothing short of abusive. We entrust teachers to educate and guard our children for more than 30 hours each week. On the one hand we put them on pedestals, expecting them to pick up the slack where we, as parents, fail. If kids are obese, we blame school cafeterias and curricula which demand children sit all day. If kids lack discipline, we blame teachers for not maintaining a tight ship. If kids are getting bullied, it must be the teachers’ faults for not paying attention. We expect teachers to be dieticians, life coaches and psychologists, holding them responsible for keeping our kids fit, disciplined and socialized.
Yet when the teachers turn around and demand the right to negotiate a fair contract, we castigate them. Most of us felt quite comfortable lapping up the government propaganda that said teachers were demanding more money. But in case you missed the nuance, this dispute has never been about money. Teachers have not been looking for salary increases, shorter work days or more vacation time. They simply want to maintain their right to negotiate a fair contract.
Imagine for a second your employer coming to you one day and saying, “Times are tough, so we’re asking you all to take a wage freeze – despite the 10 per cent inflation per year on basic goods – we’re taking away your sick days – despite the fact you look after snot-nosed kids all day -- and if you don’t like it, too bad.” You wouldn’t put up at least a little bit of a fight? To their credit, teachers, en masse, largely agreed to those concessions last spring.
But these things are never black and white. There are 114,000 full-time teachers in this province. They needed time to examine and negotiate the contract. They wanted to make sure, for example, that the very lowest-salaried people in the profession would be protected. But the government was determined to shove the contract down their throat. And when some of the boards didn’t like it, the government created back-to-work legislation because, God forbid, Ontarians be inconvenienced by any kind of shake up of the status quo.
There is a recent and disturbing history in this country of shutting down job action before it has a chance to cause any inconvenience. Since 2010, we’ve seen federal back-to-work legislation for CP Rail, Air Canada and Canada Post. As a result, we have seen insecure, minimum-wage jobs replace secure, salaried careers in these institutions. In short, we have witnessed a rapid deterioration of our workforce.
There is a common belief out there that unions have run their course, that they have no place in our modern world. How easily we forget contemporary history. If you are legitimately employed in Ontario, you have a legislated 48-hour work-week, you are entitled to vacation pay, parental leave, Employment Insurance, disability insurance and a public pension. For all this, you can thank unions, who have fought for the last hundred years and continue to fight for the preservation of workers’ rights.
If you’ve spent a day in a classroom lately, you’ll know we demand a lot of bang for our buck from teachers. Kids are jacked up on sugar and video games most days by the time they get to school; many are spoiled because parents are either absent or apathetic when it comes to discipline at home. Despite this, we expect teachers will mould our children into educated, kind and healthy individuals.
We are fortunate in this province that teaching is still considered by many educated and caring people to be a good profession. If we want to preserve the quality of our public education system by continuing to attract talented people, we need to ensure that teachers continue to be paid well and are dealt with fairly by the government. To accomplish this, however, may just mean accepting a temporary deterioration of our comfortable, middle-class lives.