A doomsday scenario with closed schools, teachers forming picket lines, and thousands of taxpayer dollars lost is what would appear to be at stake in this latest labor dispute, if you listen to the rhetoric coming out Queen’s Park.
The dispute involves the various teachers unions of Ontario, who walked out of negotiations with the government earlier this year. At issue was a freeze on wages and eliminating bankable sick days. In late August, the McGuinty government did something unexpected: it proposed legislation, the “Putting Students First Act,” that would enforce a freeze on wages and block the ability of teachers to strike for two years.
The government claims that this was done to keep schools open and save taxpayers the $473 million that would have been spent because of an automatic rollover of teachers’ contracts. But is this legislation really about deficits and keeping schools open?
The answer, in short, is no. By-elections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo were set for a few weeks after the legislation was proposed. Wanting to look good in the lead up to those votes, McGuinty decided to pick a fight with teachers. By doing this, he looks like he’s fighting to save taxpayer money, and generates an enemy to rally against — those teachers stealing your money.
In the short term, the legislation does save money but in the long term, it’s not a viable solution. A long-term solution would involve reducing the size of government and increasing taxes. Another solution would be to reform private-public partnerships, but that would bring up the examples of ORNGE and E-Health, scandals that occurred under McGuinty’s leadership. Both alternatives are politically costly, so McGuinty chose to attack teachers. After all, if it isn’t your salary that’s affected, it’s not a big issue.
While initially this will save taxpayers cash, it presents a few problems. The teachers have said that they will take the act to court over the effective ban on strike action by the union, a ban they claim goes against the “Labour Relations Act”. It’s expected that a court will side with the unions, costing the government unnecessary legal expenses. With the act repealed, it will come time to negotiate a new contract and teachers will be less willing to give up what they have. Since the teachers’ unions did not threaten a strike in the first place, they will be unhappy at the government for demonizing them for political gain. Taxpayers could lose more money in future strikes and labor disputes.
Finally, the act may in fact decrease the quality of education that some students receive, since a minority of teachers have decided to stop doing voluntary things like hosting after-school activities and buying supplies. While the provincial government’s legislation is nothing but a political gimmick, its negative implications for students, teachers and the budget are real and that’s a cause for concern.