By Doug Hallett
The local president of Ontario’s largest teachers’ union has accused the Liberal government of bringing in legislation that’s worse than anything seen during the “dark days in education” of the Mike Harris government.
“The attack on collective bargaining rights is why I can comfortably say it is worse than under Mike Harris,” said Doug Cook, president of the Upper Grand district of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
ETFO’s 76,000 members, including 1,200 who work for the Upper Grand District School Board, are starting the new school year today feeling “absolutely betrayed by who we thought were our friends,” Cook said in an interview last week.
The teacher legislation introduced by the Liberals last week is “far more draconian in its approach than anything we’ve seen before,” even during the “dark days in education” under Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris from 1995 to 2002, he charged.“We don’t know what has happened with the Liberal government. This is not the government we were accustomed to at all,” he said.
ETFO and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which represents public high school teachers, have both vowed to launch a court challenge against the new legislation, which they say strips teachers of their democratic rights to bargain.
“It’s shocking, and teachers feel betrayed,” Cook said.
The legislation, which generally reflects a two-year deal the province reached in early July with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, also forbids teachers from striking for two years.
The province is forcing teachers to accept not only a two-year wage freeze, but also “deep cuts,” particularly related to the number of sick days teachers are allowed annually and to the banking of unused sick days, Cook said.
True negotiations require a balance of power between the parties involved, he said, but this year the Liberal government has been telling teachers that “it’s their way or no way.”
When there isn’t a balance of power, “one party can humour the other, but at the end of the day the party with the power makes the decisions,” he said. “That balance of power is a key democratic principle in negotiations.”
The government “has pulled the rug out from under us,” Cook charged. “That affects teachers, education workers and all unions. All unions in Ontario need to have a close look at how the government is pulling the rug out from teachers and education workers.”
Three busloads of local ETFO members, as well as an unknown number who car-pooled to Toronto, took part in last Tuesday’s protest against the teacher legislation at Queen’s Park, Cook said. Those taking part in the protest also included OSSTF members and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents many school board workers.
“All unions across Canada are watching Ontario and how democratic principles can be eroded,” Cook said.
A call has gone out to teachers to help elect NDP candidates in provincial byelections this Thursday in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan, but Cook said he didn’t know how many Upper Grand teachers have been helping the NDP in K-W. Two Liberal wins would give the party a narrow majority.
A government news release says the teacher legislation, called the Putting Students First Act, is needed to help fight the province’s deficit while at the same time “continuing to support student achievement and protect full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, and 20,000 teaching and support staff jobs.”
Cook didn’t dispute that teacher compensation has gone up by somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent since 2004, after the Liberals came to power.
Asked if he’s not concerned that by fighting the Liberals the public teachers’ unions could be setting the stage for election of a less teacher-friendly Progressive Conservative government, Cook said his union sees itself as engaged in a fight to defend democratic principles. “I don’t know that it’s so much fighting the Liberals as defending basic democratic principles,” he said.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association warned Thursday that it will also challenge the Liberal government’s teacher legislation in court. The legislation is unconstitutional, the association claimed.