By Ryan Kelly (4th Vice President of the OSSTF District 13)
Schools are the very definition of community hubs. They are a place where parents and guardians, teachers, support staff, custodial staff, and administrators work together to provide safe space for children to learn, grow and succeed. Schools are also a place of employment, where teachers struggle for improved working and learning conditions through collective bargaining.
Contracts for education workers in Ontario expired at the end of August 2014, and Durham teachers have been without a contract for over seven months. And since Monday, April 20, Durham public secondary school teachers have been on strike. On Monday, April 27, high school teachers at the Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury also went out on strike.
By design, the issues that are negotiated locally are bargained exclusively between the union, the district’s board of education, and a trustee representative from the Ontario Public School Board Association. What has led to these strikes is the total refusal by teams representing management to accept anything but contract concessions. In fact, there is reason to believe that school boards across Ontario are acting in concert to this end.
Liberal education policy regarding teachers has been on a troublesome path since 2012. Education workers in Ontario were given a ‘take it or leave it’ imposition of terms with which to negotiate under when their last collective agreements expired. This was a departure from any semblance of the collective bargaining process.
As such, the application of these terms was rejected wholesale and with equal contempt. With four hours of ‘debate’ in Ontario’s legislator, education workers were served with bill 115 – the ‘Putting Students First Act’. This legislation imposed a number of set terms, altering collective agreements, and prevented teachers from striking. Months later, Bill 115 was repealed as capriciously as it was introduced, enabling it to avoid necessary judicial oversight. Apologies were made, blame was fitted with a golden parachute, and a commitment to remedy an ill-designed process was drafted.
Thus, a newly-crafted process was created to structure Ontario school boards’ collective bargaining. Importantly, it codified a two-tiered bargaining process designed to enable teachers to negotiate an agreement locally. In advance of the contract expiring, members were surveyed for bargaining priorities. The local executive visited schools throughout the district to further capture these priorities. OSSTF’s resulting brief was met with the will of an employer that wants to dictate terms through entirely concessionary demands, and is unwilling to move on any of their initial positions.
What does this say about the government’s education policy, and where it is going? Its seemingly arbitrary and aimless trajectory suggests there is a systemic under-appreciation for Ontario education workers. Moreover, it means that maintaining and improving the quality of education in Ontario is not the policy focus of the Ministry of Education. Recently, the Minister of education, Liz Sandals, stated that she was “very perplexed as to why there is a strike in Durham because I haven’t heard a coherent explanation as to what the local issues are.” Consistent with their legislative practices as a whole, no apparatus exists for the Minister to be apprised of local negotiations.
Accordingly, Durham secondary teachers continue to be met with a relationship characterized by employer and government impunity, rather than of partnership. This relationship is further eroded by efforts toward a system where teachers’ time and practices can be void of their control or input. A cultural shift where people will be less inclined to become or remain teachers. Where there will be teaching absent of vocation, and teacher participation bereft of passion.
Durham educators are recognized in the community and beyond for their important role in building a vibrant and growing community. This work starts in the classroom. It is a damning indictment of the Liberals’ education policy that teachers are on the picket line rather than in the classroom.