Teachers need wake-up call

After hearing what the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) needed to accomplish in order to avoid a province-wide elementary school teacher strike, one has to wonder if someone forgot to set the alarm in the morning. Better yet, who hit the snooze button?

Unless “significant progress” is made in contract talks with school boards by Feb. 13, the ETFO is threatening a strike vote that could put almost 73,000 public elementary school teachers on the picket lines by the end of March. This comes after the union rejected a generous $800 million offer that included a 12 per cent pay increase over four years, more “prep time” between classes, and smaller classrooms for Grades 4 to 8.

This failure was due to unsuccessful negotiations with the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA). The association couldn’t come to an agreement on how to spend that $800 million.

ETFO President David Clegg argues the big issue is not all about money, but about providing equal resources that secondary schools receive and increasing supervision times before classes and lunch breaks. The OPSBA agrees, saying the money is necessary for what the ETFO requests.

The ineptitude of the union is apparent, based on the issues they have proposed. For one, the rejected offer had a catch, a Dec. 15 deadline after which the offer would decrease to $268 million — which is precisely what happened.

Even if the union found a way to receive more equal resources, there would be less money available to do so, especially with Ontario’s stagnant economy. If the union and the board couldn’t even decide how to divide $800 million, wouldn’t it have made more sense to accept the offer rather than have less usable money?

You don’t have to search far to grasp the negative impacts of an educational union strike in Ontario. York University students can relate to what potential problems elementary students may encounter, not to mention the empathy they share with worried parents.

Many of those York students were probably caught up in a very similar strike earlier in their lives. Twelve years ago 126,000 Ontario elementary school teachers staged the largest strike in Canadian history. All public and Catholic elementary schools in Ontario were closed with approximately 2.1 million students out of class. That strike was a protest against a government proposal to overhaul the education system by weakening local school boards, which led the union and board to work together.

Conversely, this strike seems to go against that partnership, which has gradually progressed since the bitter strike.

Indeed the relationship between the provincial government and the teachers’ union has come a long way since the days of the Harris government in the mid-1990s. Dalton McGuinty and the Liberal government have been more than gracious and responsible for nurturing that relationship. A strike would completely offset that progress.

Ultimately, children and their parents should not have to deal with the possibility of extensive labour disruptions in elementary schools come March, when families are already confronted with a recession. If a strike does take place, many parents will not be able to go to work, or will have to pay someone to watch and care for their children — a substantial financial burden.

Both sides have to give in, and garner significant losses — self-inflicted by EFTO — but if the teachers go on strike, it will be the students and their parents who will lose the most.