No need for families to suffer through another labour dispute
Getting worked up about impending strikes or lockouts as a result of contract talks is usually a mug’s game.
When negotiations reach the point where drastic action by either side seems likely, dark talk of impacts and pain often follow — particularly when public sector jobs are involved.
Often the result is a last-minute settlement that renders irrelevant anything said or done in reaction to a possible “catastrophic” outcome.
A recent standoff between Ontario’s provincial government and the union representing thousands of school custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators is the latest example.
As a deadline approached more than 20 school boards announced they would close hundreds of schools if the workers went on strike. In the late hours of the last day before the strike and closures took effect the two sides reached a deal. End of crisis.
However, that example also represents the exception to the no-comment rule. Public sector disruptions have extremely broad impacts. A strike or lockout that closes Ontario’s elementary and secondary schools would affect two million children.
Lost school days aside, hundreds of thousands of working parents would be scrambling to find a safe place for their kids to go five days a week.
That possibility is here again as teachers’ unions talk contract. Over the next two weeks strike deadlines will arrive for almost all Ontario secondary and elementary teachers. Only the French-language schools union has not set the wheels in motion.
The story line closely mirrors what happened in the early days of former Premier Kathleen Wynne’s first term, although minus the contract talks.
The Wynne government announced budget and salary cuts and freezes as part of a plan to reduce alarmingly high deficits and a growing provincial debt. Teachers’ unions dug in. A series of rotating strikes followed. Teachers were eventually ordered back to work by the courts.
But as contract renewals — and an election — rolled around again the teachers won back almost everything they had lost. In some cases the Wynne government gave back more than it had taken away.
Students and families, however, couldn’t recover lost school time and missed extracurricular opportunities or simply wipe away the aggravation and personal costs of dealing with strikes and “work to rule” action. It doesn’t have to be that way this time.
Premier Doug Ford’s government is not proposing changes as deep as the Wynne government ordered. It has already backed off on some classroom size announcements and there is room for other concessions while still reducing costs.
The teachers also have an obvious opportunity to give a little: a proposed salary freeze.
That would be the one-per-cent cap the province has ordered on raises for all public sector employees, not just teachers.
While raises below the inflation rate mean giving up some real income, the reality is that Ontario needs to reduce spending.
And at a time where public sector salaries and benefits outstrip what many private sector workers can expect, a guaranteed one-per-cent annual raise is not too much hardship to accept.
The Ford government has shown it will give a little when faced with unified opposition. It needs to repeat that practice and teachers need to do the same.
There is no need for Ontario families to be caught in another pitched battle in their schools.