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Jan Wong: The province’s shrewd but savage strategy to stick it to Ontario’s teachers

By Jan Wong | Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Jan Wong: Strike Out

(Photographs: Demonstrators by Aaron Vincent; Kathleen Wynne by CP Images)

The school year is coming to a close, and not a moment too soon. It’s been an ugly one. Queen’s Park forced new labour contracts onto Ontario’s teacher unions. Teachers fought back by scrubbing extracurriculars for the better part of the year. And many tax-paying parents are incensed that their kids got shafted in the bargain.

The public mood is decidedly against teachers, whose demands seem ludicrous in this age of austerity. They have a pretty sweet deal. In 2012, the average teacher salary in Ontario was $83,500, and the highest paid earned $95,000. Until Queen’s Park imposed a new contract, teachers were also guaranteed 20 sick days a year, which could be carried over each year, bankable up to 200 days. Most teachers cashed them in at retirement. The province would cut them a cheque for the value of their banked days, to a maximum of $46,000. Almost everyone got the maximum.

In addition, teachers had a salary grid with a five per cent annual raise for each of their first 10 years on the job. So a new teacher earning $39,000 would be making more than $60,000 within a decade. Who in 2013 gets bankable sick days and 10 years of guaranteed raises? Such terms, negotiated in fat times, seem fiscally reckless as Ontario faces down a $12-billion deficit.

But Queen’s Park abused the negotiating process and blindsided the unions at every turn, launching an aggressive-to-the-point-of-hostile pre-emptive attack against job action. Normally, when teachers’ contracts are about to expire, the unions and the Ministry of Education dance to a familiar tune: they sit down at the table, both sides give a little bit, and then—voila!—a slight pay increase, a new four-year contract and labour peace. This time the music stopped, and, without warning, one partner suddenly flipped the other over, jiu jitsu style.

Here’s how it went down: negotiators for Ontario’s four main teachers’ unions arrived at the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street in February 2012 anticipating talks with the usual team from the ministry. Instead, there were three guys from the high-priced firm of McCarthy Tétrault, including James Farley, an insolvency specialist and a former Ontario Superior Court Justice. The lawyers announced the government’s new agenda: blowing up two Holy Grail clauses—bankable sick days and the fabled salary grid. One by one the unions pulled out, leaving just the English Catholic teachers at the negotiating table.

As the clock ticked down to the expiration of the old contracts, the government softened its stance. The ministry, which had threatened to reduce annual paid sick days to six, boosted it to 11 (though they wouldn’t be bankable) and backed down on nuking the salary grid. And the teachers gained some perks, including improved maternity leave policies. But the ministry insisted on a two-year pay freeze. By July, the English Catholic teachers had signed the government’s proffered two-year contract. A month later, the French Catholic and French public teachers’ union signed, too. But the two biggest teachers’ unions, public elementary teachers and secondary teachers, wouldn’t budge. And they represent the overwhelming majority of teachers—126,000 out of a total of 170,000.

In late August, Dalton McGuinty, once known as the “Education Premier,” pulled out ready-to-go legislation that must have been months in the making. Bill 115 passed swiftly with support from the Conservatives. Craftily, the Liberals set a deadline of December 31, after which the agreement established with the English-Catholic union would be imposed on the others. The bill’s name, “Putting Students First,” was an Orwellian touch. Bill 115 amputated teachers’ right to strike through a Catch-22 provision. Strikes are never legal once a contract is in place, the theory being that each side has already agreed to the terms. By imposing a contract, Queen’s Park ensured that any strike after December 31 would be illegal.

When the public elementary teachers decided to launch what they called a political protest—essentially a one-day strike under another name—the government had anticipated that, too. Embedded inside Bill 115 was a clause barring the Ontario Labour Relations Board from considering the Ontario Human Rights Code when determining the legality of a teachers’ strike. So not only could they not strike, they were denied the best and most obvious argument against making striking illegal. In response to the looming one-day protest, the government rushed to the labour board, which had no choice but to rule that the protests were in fact against the law.

Then, on January 23, four months after introducing the bill, the government repealed it. Laurel Broten, who was then the education minister, claimed this was an attempt to repair relations with the teachers. But it was an empty PR move. Bill 115 had already achieved its purpose—nixing those bankable sick days and freezing salaries. Tellingly, even the repealing had been premeditated; Bill 115 included a clause that allowed for cabinet to with­draw it without the legislation sitting.

A group of union leaders have since launched a legal challenge with the Ontario Superior Court accusing the government of violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in denying the right to collective bargaining. The teachers and the government will be in a dizzying legal battle for years to come.

In the end, the government says it saved a gratifying $1.1 billion by eliminating bankable sick days, while the pay freeze will save another $250 million in 2012–2013, ballooning to $540 million by 2014 for a grand savings of $1.89 billion. That’s a lot of money. But at what cost did we obtain these savings? Study after study shows that unless teachers are happy, motivated and respected, you won’t get good teaching. And a good education is inextricably linked with innovation, a quality work force, a strong economy and the ability to compete in a globalized world.

For nearly a decade, as McGuinty sought to mend fences after the Mike Harris years, reading and math scores improved steadily. By going all Machiavellian, the government squandered a reservoir of goodwill within a few short months. Premier Kathleen Wynne, the former education minister and once pro-teacher school board trustee, was not prepared to undo McGuinty’s dirty work, but she has been mopping up the mess since she took his job. Although Bill 115 is gone, once someone smashes you over the head with a hammer, you never forget it, even if they hide the weapon. Queen’s Park exchanged short-term gain for long-term pain. If you don’t believe me, just wait till 2014, when this ill-gotten contract expires and everyone returns to the negotiating table spoiling for a fight.

  • skinny dipper

    The problem with the government imposed conditions of employment is that it has destroyed a lot of goodwill. Many teachers will be more selective about the things they do at work. While some extra-curricular activities have returned, they are much fewer than what took place last year. Yes, there will likely be school track-and-field events. However, do not expect area or regional events this year. Teachers will less likely volunteer to attend workshops.

    Already, my school board is facing a shortage of supply teachers because contract teachers are starting to use their sick days which they cannot transfer to the next year. Teachers will take a day off one week, and another day off another week until they run out of sick days.

  • People Are Selfish

    And that’s the problem with sick days right there. People (not just teachers) start to think of them as owed holidays, when they’re meant to be for people who are sick to avoid spreading their illness to colleagues/customers/students without having to take a vacation day. Instead, people see it as an entitlement that *has* to be used, because heaven forbid they should have a benefit that they haven’t completely abused. I believe in unions, but stuff like this is why many people think they’ve outlived their usefulness.

  • norsem4n

    Welcome to the world we have created. Ellesworth Toohies are becoming the norm of the world.

  • People Are Selfish

    I’m actually a crazy leftie. But I don’t think there’s anything progressive or liberal about abusing a benefit, and I don’t think that unions/Ayn Rand charicatures have a monopoly on pulling stuff like this either. Many of my teacher and autoworker friends (I live in Oshawa) are conservatives who take advantage of these perks too, completely unironically. It’s a failure of character, not of ideology.

  • Peter Bilorio

    I’ve seen less bias from North Korean news channels.

    “they sitdown at the table, both sides give a little bit, and then—voila!—a slight pay increase, a new four-year contract and labour peace”

    I can imagine that conversation:

    “Hey teacher unions we’ll give you everything you want if you just spend millions campaigning for us and attacking the conservatives to keep us in power”

    Teachers unions: “DONE!”

    They made their bed with the Liberals, time to sleep in it.

  • Jeffry House

    And of course the whole thing was timed so that the Liberals could win two by-elections and become a majority through this posturing.

  • nakru

    I’d like to believe that people who become teachers do so because they want to influence children and youth in a positive way (which includes creative and engaging teaching as well as leading extra-curricular activities) and not for the money and not for, what are in my opinion, overblown benefits. A two year pay freeze should not have been a deal breaker. Maybe i am just an altruist….

  • People Are Selfish

    I don’t understand the point of view that because you’re doing something that people think is really important and socially beneficial that you should somehow be okay with not making money. Can’t people want to educate young people *and* make money? We lionize business people with massive salaries and stock compensation, often irrespective of their companies’ fiscal results. If we (and by we I mean society) keep saying that teachers are important, then we ought to be paying them like we think they’re important. I’m not saying that they aren’t making good money right now, because I think they are, but the idea that they should be willing to work for less because their job is somehow noble is a pretty toxic one.

  • Peter Bilorio

    Just look at the Federal level, employees call in sick twice as often as private sector employees and they also found that 60% of the time it was called in adjacent to a weekend or a holiday. That’s a lot of long weekends.

  • People Are Selfish

    While that on the surface seems to be an indictment on public-sector workers (and I don’t disagree that it is), is it a function of the fact that they are federal employees, or that they have so much paid sick leave? Is it institutional inertia and an embedded culture of entitlement (one that manifests itself in other ways in private corporations [cf. the finance industry]) that could be changed?

    I’d argue that if the private sector offered the same sort of paid sick leave policies, you’d find the same trends in the private sector. Many private sector employees, however, have little or *no* paid sick leave, which means they show up to work ill, infecting their colleagues (, although there are tons of articles with similar suggestions).

    I think paid paid sick days (some number of them) are an important benefit that shouldn’t be eliminated (although they ought not to carry over – that’s just silly). It assumes, however, a responsible workforce. What’s the solution? Doctor’s notes? What if it’s not serious enough to require medical attention but serious enough that you don’t *want* the employee to come in? I wish I knew the answer.

  • People Are Selfish

    Also, assuming an even distribution of illness, 40% of all sick days are going to be adjacent to weekends just as a matter of statistics. If we assume that it’s possible to get sick on a Saturday and Sunday (of course it is), thus increasing the chances of calling in sick on Monday, I’m not sure the 60% figure is particularly incriminating. I mean, I get your point, but presenting it like you did makes it seem way worse than what would be expected.

  • Mark Bates

    There are a whole lot of ironies that come from this tragedy.

    Irony #1: Teachers give up a plan that gave 20 sick days a year at 100% of pay for a plan that gives them 10 sick days at 100% and up to 120 sick days at 90% of pay. It was never about philosophy of sick days. It was about a $1.1 billion money grab.

    Irony #2: Strikes and sick days are replaced by forced days off and Voluntary leave days. What is the message here??? Savings with the correct spin.

    Irony #3: Earl Manners, formerly president of OSSTF, now represents the school board who takes the elementary teachers to the OLRB for using the ban on extra-curriculars tactic, A tactic that he invented.

    Irony #4: Watch as outgoing OSSTF president, Ken Coran, makes a play to run the newly formed, union-run benefit plan. Wonder what kind of salary and perks that will command?

  • from_the_outside


  • sanmalo

    Sad thing in Toronto and Ontario is that so many, the media especially, say, “Oh, they have so good deal, so high salary but mine is much lower- take it away from tem!” The misleading nature of this demand comes from the argument that we are at the moment experiencing austerity. It seems that this austerity never goes away hence the attempt to fuel animosity and anger at those who earn more. In Europe where I have lived for long time, these things are completely different- “Oh, they earn so much, they have good insurance, etc., that’s great, positive, I would like them too!” Perhaps it is very British method to patronize, divide and conquer but should it be so in 21st century Toronto?