Anyone following the ongoing labour dispute between Ontario teachers and the province has heard about the wage-increase legislation. Or at least that is what I would call it if I was working for Premier Doug Ford – I am not.
The Ontario Government, in an attempt to quell unsustainable budget increases, has decided to allow for an increase of one-per cent for public sector unions. This type of wage increase has been attempted before in Canada and this writer in fact lived under a zero per cent cap while working in government in the past.
It’s not fun. Working with no hope of an increase is somewhat soul destroying. But now in Ontario, this is not a zero per cent cap, but rather an increase at a time of massive debt and deficit left and created by the previous regime. That is actually kind of generous in light of the province’s finances.
At least in the case of the British Columbia Government from 2001 to 2006 we had goals in mind. We were told that we would be rewarded once the province was able to get the deficit in line and we were.
In fact, in 2006 not only did I get a wage increase, but also a bonus when our bargaining unit signed a new contract. To be honest it wasn’t my bargaining unit as I was an Order in Council, but our affiliated bargaining unit from within the ministry.
The province actually made somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1 billion available to individual bargaining units as a bonus if they signed contracts. Even though we were an “evil” right-of-centre government that took over from an NDP government, we were signing public sector union contracts left-right-and-centre.
We actually had labour peace in B.C. or at least as close to labour peace as that province can get. Our goal at the time was a balanced budget and a wage cap helped us achieve that. Everyone was part of the solution.
All of this is to say I wish Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Government could find ways to incentivise public sector unions to sign deals and I believe the best way to do that is to make them part of the solution. Something successive governments of all three flavours have failed to do.
The province has found ways to incent other areas. For example Deputy Ministers who have seen yearly increases are now compensated based on performance. Not the 14 per cent that gets tossed around in the media mind you – it’s two per cent and there are only 28 of them.
Incentivised pay is something that is always a no go for public sector unions. I can understand why that would be in several of the professions our tax dollars go to pay for and how working with those contracts would be very difficult.
However, education is the second largest line item in the budget and we have a responsibility to have better performing students. When Ontario has both the strongest teacher’s unions in Canada and the worst math scores, it is apparent there is a disconnect in what the point of education is.
I know all the reasons. Classrooms are more difficult, students have varying degrees of learning barriers and resources are not available. My question then becomes how does a province like Alberta beat Ontario on ability to educate students, especially in the area of math?
I am actually serious about this. The ongoing year-after-year labour strife in schools needs to find a solution. I cannot believe for a second that Alberta, a province suffering massive economic problems, doesn’t have the same issues that Ontario does in the classroom. Yet, they somehow have found a better way to deal with them.
This I think is what frustrates observers of the Ontario education debate. Other places – granted not all – seem to be able to handle these same problems much better than we can.
So this is all to say I think we all need to do better. This debate needs to stop being about money and start being about results for students and parents. If we need more money in the school system I would be the first to say spend more if you can guarantee the results change.
That guarantee can only come if all sides of this argument step back from their chosen positions and work together. Teachers are the ones in the classroom so they see what the realities are. Parents see the report cards – when teachers are allowed to give out report cards – so they know how their kids are performing.
For the unions and the government this tends to be only about money. So maybe we should find solutions to our system failures before we start talking about the cost and how to pay for it.
At end of the day strikes are only about money. If we gave a massive increase yet teachers walked out because kids are not getting the education they deserve I would join that picket line. I have never seen a picket line of that kind and once again we have the worst math scores in Canada.
So I think the time has come to put down the placards, for the parties to get back to the table and focus on better schools not higher compensation. If the schools get better the compensation will come and I believe that is the commitment the government needs to make so teachers are part of the solution.
You can disagree, but before Premier Ford was elected Ontario had the worst performing math scores in Canada. Then suddenly the province increased funding to education and everywhere we saw signs that say, “Cuts hurt kids.”
So if schools weren’t performing before the so-called “cuts”, what exactly was hurting kids then? Or perhaps this isn’t about compensation; this is about where the money is being spent.
I know it is a pipe dream, but just once, couldn’t we start with the purpose of schools, then the performance based on that purpose and then fund those schools accordingly?
Kelly Harris is Principal of Harris Public Affairs and former Membership Chair of the Public Affairs Association of Canada (Ontario Chapter). He is a regular commentator on Global News Radio 640 and columnist for Queen’s Park Briefing. He has spent the last decade working with Canada’s credit unions and served as Director on the Board of the Canadian Credit Union Association. An internationally published journalist, he has held senior positions in the Gordon Campbell Government in British Columbia and Tim Hudak’s opposition at Queen’s Park. An avid traveller, cyclist and father to Busher, an orange tabby, named after Toronto Maple Leaf Great Harvey “Busher” Jackson.