Politics vs. Unions

OSSTF President Harvey Bischoff (left), & Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce (right).

OPINION: Politics vs. Unions

(A pdf version of this opinion piece can also be found here)

By Larry Pattison, former HWDSB Trustee and Protector at INSE

RE: Recent Labour Negotiations Between the Province and OSSTF

December 16, 2019 – Although I have never personally been represented by a union, I have seen more than a few examples through my work experiences where such representation was long overdue.

I would describe the Pattison’s as a union family though. Four generations of Stelco workers including my sister who is learning the union steward ropes herself. She is becoming quite the advocate as that exposure deepens, following in the footsteps of our uncle Ed who was involved on the front lines at The Spectator back in the day.

I’ve also spent most of my adult years surrounded by union halls, union activities and rally’s living in our cities lower communities. I likely wouldn’t have been elected Trustee either without the support of unions and the yearly community event our family hosts each year, would not have been possible in 2019 without their support for community either.

Although I have not been in a union, working for the school board I did have the pleasure of meeting with the various unions including having a conversation with OSSTF President Harvey Bischof at a conference a couple of years ago, where expressed my wish that teachers feel more comfortable offering their advice and sharing their concerns with Trustees instead of second hand staff recommendations.

I’ve seen the good and bad in unions and that isn’t a knock because there is good and bad in everything and everyone. I am not a ‘union’s at all cost’ person however, but that is also because labour laws have changed drastically over the years – thanks in large part to unions, and my own work experiences.

If I look at my present employer as an example, I believe they have mostly operated as if a union was chasing close behind when I think about our benefits, holiday’s, our social club, computer purchase plan, work environment, and the little things they do to make the place we spend most of our waking lives, a relatively positive experience. They are an employer who gives back, pays fair market wages, gives yearly bonuses including yearly cost of living increases, and in many ways is a good template for how employees, customers, and the community should be valued. They aren’t perfect,  but I’ve personally never seen reason for union representation and that opinion continues to grow stronger as they strive to become more and more connected to employee voice.

As a former Trustee, I seen a few examples of where I believe certain contract stipulations interfere with the successful delivery of education but even more so, I seen exactly why their role is crucial in a hyper political environment. That is not a knock at our existing government because as a former elected official, I know that the problems and deficiencies in education have grown over many generations of cross-political representation. I also no longer feel pointing fingers and pitting blue against red, green vs. orange, politics vs. unions is doing us any good.

I examined a few union contracts over my 4 years as a Trustee. Of course those were private sessions and I will remain bound by my oath as an elected official, but I understand and appreciate the roles our unions play even more through the hours we spent going through them in a room adjacent the Trustee boardroom at 20 Education Court. I also get the delicate balance between wants and the fiduciary expectations required of those charged with keeping to and reducing budgets whether school board executives or political representatives from Trustees, all the way up to our Prime Minister.

We knew when labour negotiations finally settled during my term, that Boards would find themselves back in a similar situation in short order and here we are a couple of years later, having these difficult conversations once again.

In brief, the union is currently pressing for cost of living increases, undoing recent class size increases which have cost teachers their jobs and class choices for many students, and to eliminate e-learning requirements.

In offering my opinion, I will start by saying I believe those charged with caring for and preparing our children for life deserve to be among the highest paid professions. They play a critical and long-standing role in the development and well-being of our youth and that should be held in very high regard.

I also understand that as a society, education needs to be more sustainable, but I will strongly agree as a parent, someone engaged in education, and as a former Trustee, that we need more supports and one on one time in general; not less. More focus on our children now will cost us so much less in the future but I also realize that we cannot simply just throw money at everything even when we (hopefully), know that it’s the right thing to do.

When contracts come up, it’s the role of unions and members to work together to ensure new contracts reflect current student’s needs, employee rights, and safety of the whole, and it’s the job of the Province to think about all of this as well as their fiduciary responsibilities. It is also the responsibility of both to negotiate in good faith and in my opinion, not publicly through social media or otherwise. I agree that we should have constant updates, but that they should come from a third party. This third party should be highlighting what the remaining issues are, where the parties stand, and reasoning behind their stances, without showing bias or judgement to either party. As it stands now, both parties are negotiating publicly and it’s a matter of opinion, how the public feels about where we are in the negotiation process.

In conclusion, I think it’s fair to say given the history of labour negotiations, that rare is it that one side gets everything they want and the other bows down in defeat. Negotiate means finding a middle ground.

Here are my opinions on the three main issues before us and where thinking further out, could help us find net neutrality in these negotiations in the interim.

e-Learning

This current government first proposed that 4 out of the 30 credits required to graduate were to be online learning, back in May of this year and that this would likely begin in the 2020-2021 school year. During recent talks with unions, that number has been proposed to be reduced to 2 should an agreement be settled. The unions are fighting to have that number dropped to zero. Here is why I somewhat disagree with both parties on this front.

We talk a great deal in educational circles about 21st Century Learning and part of that change, is how education is being delivered post-secondary. To some degree, this type of learning is currently also happening at the secondary level as well. I have completed many courses myself in this fashion over the years, so I feel it’s important that our students have a good understanding of these practices given we also talk in length about creating lifelong learners. Not everyone can afford the time required to travel to educational centres and there may be other barriers like accessibility or social emotional challenges as well. Some of the courses we seek are also not offered locally so online learning increases the scope of our continuing education.

On the flipside, the discipline required for online learning is not for everyone. We also know that there still exists a very large gap between internet access in suburban vs. rural communities, including the ongoing SWIFT initiative. This government program is meant to start building out telecommunications networks to better serve the bandwidth desserts that still exist in an age where we might otherwise think everyone has the same digital capabilities as those of us living close to large city centres.

Here is a great article below that talks about secondary e-learning as it stands today and the challenges that are foreseen including the unknowns such as increasing online learning deliverability 10-fold, and whether the private sector will be the true beneficiaries of these changes.

https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/ontario-is-poised-to-require-every-high-school-student-take-four-online-courses-what-does-it-mean

It is my opinion that requiring e-learning is important but that those courses should not be graded. Keep the current 18 compulsory and 12 optional credit requirements out of the 30 needed to obtain an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), but require that one compulsory credit contain an e-learning component, and that a compulsory e-learning component must be part of one of their optional course options as well. Both credits should be earned in a classroom working with a teacher during instructional hours, however.

For example, if you take an online math credit, that credit will be obtained in the math classroom in grade 10, but the teacher will work closely with the student to understand how e-learning works, and the skills required for successful e-learning throughout the semester.

For the second required e-learning course, in the grade 11 or 12 year, a course from the optional course selections will be done through e-learning which will be done in class throughout the semester as a way to further work on and refresh e-learning skills, but once again no marks given to the e-learning component.

The in-class part is crucial because of limited connectivity in rural areas as mentioned, but also because everyone cannot afford technology or access to internet. Offering it in class at least prepares students for lifelong learning, and helps us strengthen our e-learning offerings gradually. What we can then do over time, is work towards mandatory self-directed e-learning for students whose postsecondary path will require this type of learning in order to be successful in those programs, but perhaps spread that learning over the course of the year to once again ensure connectivity and technological availabilities outside the school are not barriers to this type of learning.

This does nothing to balance any books for the current government in the short term, but it finds some middle ground and works towards gradually preparing for a future where technology and course delivery are better equipped for mandatory self-directed e-learning.

Current compulsory vs. optional learning requirements to receive an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) – http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/graduate.html

Cost of Living

This is a tough one that is not limited to one party as we also seen many years of public sector salary freezes under the past government as well.

You may have your opinion about teacher’s salaries or wages for any public sector employee involved in the education of our youth in general, but to me this is about being a good employer. If the government has a problem with wages than that’s a longer discussion that should not be resolved by cutting what should actually be a base employment right, yearly cost of living increases.

Even in the leanest of markets, I do not believe I have ever not received a cost of living increase in the 21 years I have been employed at my current place of work. It’s these little things that make them a very good place to spend most of my waking hours.

Unfortunately with central bargaining, there are certain things local school boards have little control over so when it comes to wages, contracts, and curriculum, boards and the province are really a joint employer with the entity with the purse and original educational documentation given the power to significantly boost or bring down local entities ability to be great employers.

There are so many amazing things happening at local boards, but decisions being made in recent years by the province have created a work environment I wouldn’t want to be a part of. My desire for my own children to not be customers of public educations decline has increased as well which unfortunately doesn’t reflect all the wonderful things our entire education collectives do for our kids every day.

Life is increasingly becoming hard to manage financially and socially. To not give employees something as minimal as a cost of living increase tells them you do not value their efforts, their sacrifices, their dedication, continued learning, and passion to educate and prepare our beings for future success within our communities. I will also note that I make the average teacher salary with little to no education. A level that took me close to 30 years to achieve through continuing education and perseverance. I’ve also looked into being a teacher as a second career but I could not afford the cost or time to explore such an avenue. Their wages are more than worth what they are tasked with on a daily basis. The only abuse I am dealt on a daily basis is working with 30 year old technology.

In closing, I would also challenge that giving raises to publicly elected and funded positions, while the province had previously declared caps against wage increases for public sector employees, is something that has a good case in our court systems.

Wage caps: https://globalnews.ca/news/6143895/ontario-government-bill-cap-public-sector-wages/

Class Sizes

I would argue that you could put some students in a room with a teacher ratio of 1:50, and they would be successful. We also know that there are many who are already greatly challenged in a class of say 25 and for certain students, those caps are a 1:15 ratio.

There are too many issues in our classroom as it is with EA support being vastly reduced, and very limited volunteer opportunities in our schools.

We may be able to get to a place where more classes have higher caps, but we really need to sit down as a collective of decision makers, staff, students and caregivers, to determine how we can better support our already struggling educators, supports, and students within our system. Maybe down the road, it’s 35 students per class , three EA’s split between two classrooms, and a parent volunteer per class? Whatever that looks like to ensure entire classes aren’t in the halls while one student is being addressed, bullying decreases can be achieved, and staff abuse by students limited. Until this time, we shouldn’t be putting more pressure on teachers and EA’s than they are already under.

We also need more course choice for our students in our efforts to increase and then maintain graduation rates. We need them more engaged and this cannot be obtained with fewer course options and less access to 1:1 time with an educator or support.

There are too many waterfall affects to something like increasing class size caps without addressing the mounting issues that already exist within our systems including very likely, even more school closures and losses to local community assets.

Everyone vs. Unions

I know I have basically sided with the union on the 3 main issues that have been shared with the public, although I have not commented on benefits increase requests as I am not sure what those are. I do know that there are certain items in my own benefits plan that have not changed in the 20 years I have been eligible for benefits so whatever those requests are, if $200 for glasses 20 years ago meant a free pair of glasses every two years and it hardly covers lenses today, let’s once again think about being good employers over saving a few dollars.

Our public entities, whether federal, provincial, municipal (councils and school boards), should be among the world’s best employers – a shining example of how to treat customers, employees, and highly sought after as a potential employer. I only have to look locally as an example of how far we have to go to meet such high standards. Calling ourselves Hamiltonian’s, Ontarian’s, or Canadians, is hard to be proud of when the entities that represent us on the words stage do not reflect the basic values or what should be basic human rights, of it’s inhabitants.

I too want to live in a country that isn’t in deep, unmanageable debt but I also believe in our public entities and social services for those who struggle in our society. There must be a balance. Quick cuts most not rule the day where a discussion today could possibly mean even more savings 10 years from now. Even if that might mean that the current leadership isn’t recognized for the change and savings such a meaningful conversation spread out over the long haul might obtain.

It’s a shame that these discussions become politics versus unions because it sends a message that unions are something owned by one political body. They are not an NDP thing any more than they are Liberal, Conservative, Green, or Independent thing. They are a bi-partisan entity and when we are discussing the status of union and provincial negotiations in the public, we shouldn’t be blaming others, but rather reflecting on our own role in the conversation.

Like a relationship, a sports team, and the work environment, no one person can be blamed for failure. Whether the parties are willing to except it or not, the unions and province are a team. They have different personal targets but together, their main goal takes teamwork to achieve.

Once again this is not a direct attack on the current government because these thoughts go back many years, but the Ministry of Education should not be the political decision of the day. It must become a larger, bi-partisan network with the well-being of staff, students, and families at the forefront – not political will. These conversations need to happen but a society divided by political colour, will never find union in decisions if we don’t start making them as a collective of parties and those affected by proposed changes.

Let’s remember what unions have fought for from holidays, wages, work hours, etc. over the years they have been fighting for employee rights. There are aspects of unions you may feel need challenging, but their existence is protected under our laws and we should not being mocking their place because it’s only making those challenging their role look unprofessional, unsympathetic, and unrealistic in their efforts. You also come across anti-labor and in turn allow for labour to be something of political ownership. We should all own labour.

Act in good faith. That is what is needed to be successful. Neither side may break on their current positions but that in itself is not bad faith. Talking about the other out in the open and through the media in a negative light, is.

We’re talking a lot about curbing bullying, yet I see it from leaders in the news every day. When will it stop? We need to inspire our youth and lead by example.

The province has a fiduciary responsibility, and the unions are there to stand up for their members. Both are also driven by memberships to be sustainable. It is not the other’s worry whether these targets can be met because their job is to represent those that trusted them with these roles but if you don’t see one another as partners that sometimes disagree, then your failure isn’t in the issues you are unsuccessful in advocating for. It’s the damage to the relationship when all is said and done and how the court of public opinion perceived the process as a whole.

As a parent, of course I want to avoid a strike and any disruption to my child’s education and the memories they make at school whether that’s being a part of a club, the friendships they are building, the teachers who are molding them, or after school activities, dances and trips that they will remember fondly forever. I am also tired of the bullying, seeing special needs kids falling through the cracks, and teachers and supports at wits end.

Find a resolution or don’t, but do find a way towards media silence going forward, and instead provide to the point textual updates on your respective websites as to the status of your negotiations rather than social media ramblings.

Both parties are putting students first. Once that statement is realized, the rest is simply a difference of opinion.

2 thoughts on “Politics vs. Unions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top