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August 21, 2015

Ontario Teachers: How to Trash Public Education, Stick It to Teachers, and Call Yourself Liberal

by Jason Kunin

Ontario Teachers' Strike

The last time Ontario education workers successfully negotiated a collective agreement, George W. Bush was in the white house, Michael Jackson was alive, and Lehman Brothers had a triple-A rating.

As education workers in Ontario prepare for strike action in the fall – one year without a collective agreement and three years without a negotiated one (since the last one in 2012 was legislated) – we can reflect on the efforts by successive NDP, Conservative, and Liberal governments to erode collective bargaining in this province over the past 25 years.


From the Social Contract to Bill 115

In 1993, the Bob Rae NDP government passed the “Social Contract,” which wiped out locally negotiated collective agreements across the province to impose wage reductions by freezes and unpaid days off.

Not to be outdone, in 1997 the Mike Harris Conservative government made good on the promise of Education Minister John Snoblen to “create a crisis” in education. Bill 160 dissolved existing collective agreements, forcibly merged school boards and local unions, and threw the entire education revenue system into chaos by redirecting billions of dollars in locally raised education property taxes to provincial coffers, where they were used to subsidize generous corporate tax cuts.

With the 2003 election of the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty, who branded himself as “the education premier,” the system did receive small infusions of cash, mostly for targeted programs that played well politically. Local Boards were also provided with funding to provide modest raises to teachers while caretaking and secretarial staff lost jobs. But there was never enough new money to meet the growing needs of an increasingly strained system: rising energy costs, swelling capital repair backlogs, and increasing poverty among students.

For the most part, then, Harris era “reforms” remained in place while the Liberals introduced low-cost policy changes. Initiatives such as “credit rescue” and “credit recovery” increased graduation rates, but set public schools on the course of becoming credit mills that gave the appearance of a system that was improving at meeting students’ needs.

With the continued decline of Ontario’s revenue base, the collapse of its manufacturing sector, and rising public debt – mostly the result of national trade and economic policies, such as the reduction of corporate taxes – the Liberals began to look at ways of curtailing public spending by micromanaging public sector bargaining.

In 2008, just before the economic crisis hit, the McGuinty government worked to control the outcome of local agreements for education workers through a “central discussion table” framework negotiated at the provincial level within which local bargaining would be largely confined.

It worked. Teachers saw modest increases in salary. But that was the last time collective agreements for education workers were negotiated locally. When those four-year agreements expired in 2012, the newly re-elected McGuinty government, one seat shy of a majority, thought it could win over Conservative voters in a Kitchener-Waterloo by-election by stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights and imposing an austerity contract through legislation. After all, getting tough on teachers had worked for the Mike Harris Conservatives. The calculation was that it might work for the Liberals too as they sought to capture the riding from a former Harris-era education minister, Elizabeth Whitmer.

The plan backfired. The seat was won instead by the NDP’s Catherine Fife. Dalton McGuinty resigned under a cloud of mounting spending scandals, though not before making sure a legislated teacher contract, Bill115, was in place, complete with strips to sick days, 0% pay increases, and mandatory unpaid days off. The union managed a few concessions, such as an extra sick day and slightly improved maternity leave, when Kathleen Wynne succeeded McGuinty later as Liberal Party leader and premier.


The move to provincial bargaining

The imposed contract expired in 2014 and no new contract has been negotiated. This time, the Kathleen Wynne government, in consultation with the provincial unions, has worked out a new two-tiered bargaining structure: moving all big-ticket items to the central table, and leaving locals to bargain over the scraps such as teacher performance appraisals.

On one level, moving to provincial bargaining makes sense since funding for education now comes solely from the province. In 1997 the Mike Harris government stripped local school boards of their ability to raise revenue through property taxes and began funding boards through a funding formula that was deliberately designed to starve the system and encourage middle-class families to send their kids to private schools (with tax breaks as an incentive).

The Harris tax grab left bargaining to the local boards. In effect the whole arrangement was a shell game to cover disinvestment in public education. The plan was to let local boards face the brunt of public anger when programs had to be cut, school buildings fell into disrepair, and local bargaining hit an impasse.

What has made the current two-tiered bargaining structure dysfunctional, however, is the Liberals’ inclusion of the Ontario School Board Association (OPSBA) at the central table and provided them with a virtual veto. Worse, the members of OPSBA have decided to make decisions based on consensus, which is impossible to achieve since every school board has its own priorities – basically, items that they want stripped from local agreements.


Good cop/Bad cop – Liberals and their task forces

The Liberals must have known that OPSBA was going to be an obstructive force. Indeed, it’s likely they were brought to the table to serve as the “bad cop” to the government’s “good cop.” This is consistent with the Wynne government’s pattern of deflecting responsibility for its policies by hiding behind task forces and other bodies.

So, for example, back in the fall of 2014 the Wynne government used the pretext of a dispute between a few Toronto school trustees and the Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to establish a task force on school board governance led by former College of Teachers president Margaret Wilson. She produced a report recommending the TDSB fast-track the closure and sell-off of schools, a directive that seemed to have little to do with governance but one that complied with the Liberals’ Education Funding Consultation Guide, which had been released with little public fanfare several months earlier. The Wilson report also recommended curtailing the power of trustees and stripping them of their constituency assistants and offices. It is probably no coincidence this was done just as a recent election saw the emergence of a potentially progressive majority on the board, many of them with links to the NDP.

Similarly, when Wynne and her Education Minister Liz Sandals, a former president of OPSBA, sought to legislate the three striking districts of Rainbow, Peel, and Durham back to work, they dusted off an obscure and forgotten body, the Education Relations Commission (ERC), and asked them to investigate whether the school year for the affected students would be in jeopardy. The Liberals then took political cover behind the ERC’s conclusion that it was, and back-to-work legislation was passed. Again, another PR exercise in good cop-bad cop.


Break the union, sell off the schools

Back in May, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) ruled that OSSTF strikes in Peel, Rainbow, and Durham were illegal, arguing picket signs and twitter feeds of striking members suggested they were striking over provincial issues when they were supposed to be striking over local ones – a confusion that was inevitable given the legislation that created this two-tiered bargaining structure never spelled out which issues were supposed to be at which table. The OLRB gave the boards two weeks to clean up their strike language before teachers could head back to the picket line, an order preempted by government back-to-work legislation.

All the same, the government let the strikes drag on for four, five, and six weeks to send a message that they were perfectly content to allow future strikes to drag on and let OSSTF drain its financial resources. This is the veiled warning behind Liz Sandals’ more recent threat that education workers could face a possible lockout in the fall.

Meanwhile, while the public was focused on the strikes in Rainbow, Peel, and Durham, the Wynne government created – yes – another task force on TDSB governance, this one led by former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall. A series of public meetings began in the spring – poorly advertised, tightly scripted, and without translators. Many of these meetings had more school administrators in attendance than parents or members of the public.

Wynne further made it clear what conclusion she expected the Hall task force to arrive at by musing publically that the TDSB might be too big and be split up. The task force’s report, originally expected the first week of June, has been delayed several times and has still not been released.

The TDSB is sitting on a $3.5 billion capital repair backlog on its buildings – the result of two decades of underfunding – and the Wynne government’s ideological refusal to raise taxes or restore the powers of local trustees and boards to do so has effectively given them little choice but to proceed with a sell-off of Toronto schools it has designated as “underutilized.” It has deemed schools underutilized largely by ignoring the fact that these buildings also house daycares, adult classes, health clinics, and otherwise serve as community hubs.


The labour standoff right now

Since little local bargaining is happening – and can’t, really, as most boards are waiting for a provincial agreement to establish their parameters for bargaining – we will now be moving into provincial strike actions in the fall. OSSTF has directed its members not to run extracurricular activities in September and promises there will be further withdrawals of administrative duties. Its elementary and Catholic affiliates, ETFO and OECTA, will be engaging in similar actions.

The standoff has begun, and the Wynne government will likely use the battle with the education unions to distract the public from its further gutting of local school board democracy and its wholesale selloff of school buildings. Unlike in 1997, there is no mass movement behind education workers in support of better funding for education. Unfortunately, education workers and their unions have not yet done the community organizing work they need to do to get the grassroots political support they need to make provincial governments take heed.

Speaking at the OSSTF Annual Meeting of Provincial Assembly last year, Kathleen Wynne told the crowd she entered politics because of Mike Harris. She seems now to be finishing the job he began, unless we can create the pressure to protect public education and preserve our schools as community hubs.

Jason Kunin is a teacher with the Toronto District School Board and a former Executive Officer at Large with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, District 12.