The Ford Government’s Formula for Relief of Public-Sector Labour Pain

Peter Shawn Taylor
February 18, 2020
With fiscally-conservatives parties in power in most provinces and deficits plaguing nearly all of them, contentious labour negotiations with entrenched public-sector unions seem inevitable, and strikes are very likely to follow. Ontario’s current teachers’ strike is thus a sign of things to come, with Alberta probably close behind. So how should politicians prepare themselves for the pain of long, drawn-out public sector strikes – perhaps even avoiding the typical ignominious climb-down? Peter Shawn Taylor reveals how one provincial government came up with a simple, parent-friendly strategy to buy itself time for credible negotiations.

The Ford Government’s Formula for Relief of Public-Sector Labour Pain

Peter Shawn Taylor
February 18, 2020
With fiscally-conservatives parties in power in most provinces and deficits plaguing nearly all of them, contentious labour negotiations with entrenched public-sector unions seem inevitable, and strikes are very likely to follow. Ontario’s current teachers’ strike is thus a sign of things to come, with Alberta probably close behind. So how should politicians prepare themselves for the pain of long, drawn-out public sector strikes – perhaps even avoiding the typical ignominious climb-down? Peter Shawn Taylor reveals how one provincial government came up with a simple, parent-friendly strategy to buy itself time for credible negotiations.
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You might think a list of relevant facts would get a good grade from teachers. Not during a teachers’ strike.

Amidst escalating strikes that began last December in Ontario, a group calling itself Vaughan Working Families earlier this month bought full-page ads in the province’s three largest newspapers pointing out some pertinent truths about teachers’ compensation and working conditions. Among the facts: Ontario’s high school teachers make, on average, “over $90,000 a year”, and the number of teachers in the province is growing faster than the number of students.

The response to these interesting morsels of information? A concerted media attack on the messenger. Exhaustive investigations by the Toronto Star and left-wing website PressProgress focused on tracking down the source of the stock photo in the ad (Poland) and naming the individuals behind Vaughan Working Families (prominent local businessmen, some of whom have ties to the Doug Ford government, but others who’ve donated to both the  Conservatives and Liberals). The NDP followed with hysterical demands for an investigation by Elections Ontario. Everyone seemed very concerned about why this “shadowy” group was trying to influence public opinion and whether such a thing was even legal.

Vaughan Working Families’ full-page ads were excoriated by the left for pointing out simple facts about Ontario teachers’ compensation and working conditions.

No one seemed at all concerned about the facts in question, which were dismissed by critics as “misleading or debateable.” Yet according to provincial data, the average English-language high school teacher in Ontario makes $92,900 a year, or somewhat more than the ad claims. By way of comparison, the income threshold for the top 10 percent of income earners across Canada is $96,000, so most high school teachers in the province are just a stipend away from out-earning 90 per cent of all working Canadians; whether they can even be considered “middle class” is up for debate. Further, enrolment data reveals that since 2002-2003 the number of students in publicly-funded Ontario schools has fallen by 124,000 while the number of teachers has actually grown by 15,000. Fewer students, more teachers: discuss.

Unfortunately, there has been very little discussion about the facts on the ground during the current teachers’ strikes in Ontario. Of much greater interest is the degree of inconvenience being imposed. Since December, the province’s four major teachers’ unions, covering elementary, high school, Catholic and French-language schools, have shifted their strategy from denial of certain services such as supervising after-school activities, to rotating school closures on a board-by-board basis, to broader strikes. A complete province-wide shutdown is planned for February 21.

Taylor - Inset 2 (above)
A caring profession’s negotiating strategy: Ontario’s rotating school closures are about to morph into a province-wide shut-down.
A caring profession’s negotiating strategy: Ontario’s rotating school closures are about to morph into a province-wide shut-down.

The goal is to raise the pressure on Ford’s government to settle on the teachers’ terms by making life as difficult as possible for parents and kids. Despite the strikers’ repeated claims that they are taking action on behalf of their students, they are imposing hardship on those very children by denying them their school day. How’s that for caring? As with most public-sector strikes, the actual issues are secondary to the application of public pain. But while unions usually hold all the cards in these situations, this time around the Ontario government has an ace of its own to play. 

Before we get to the strategic maneuvering, however, let’s briefly consider the issues at stake – if only for form’s sake. In a government-wide bid to hold the line on public expenditures, the Ford government last year proposed increasing average high-school class size from the current 22 to 28, a figure similar to classes elsewhere in Canada, such as for school boards in Calgary and Edmonton. The Ontario government also unveiled a requirement that all students take four online courses over their four years in high school. Plus, wage increases across the entire public sector were to be held to 1 percent this year. 

While the teachers’ unions have sought to frame their strike as a defence of educational standards, they are demanding a 2 percent wage increase for themselves. Casting further doubt on their alleged altruism is their adamant opposition to a government proposal to reintroduce merit-based hiring. Apparently believing they have been given a mandate to determine education policy in the province, they also oppose all the government’s proposals on class size and online learning, with no apparent room for negotiation. 

A grade of D for self-awareness and a sense of irony.

Teachers may find common ground with many parents in preferring small classes, but a preponderance of academic research concludes this has little to no bearing on academic outcomes. Results from the OECD’s most recent international standardized science tests of high school-aged students show kids in larger classes tend to perform better than those in smaller classes. A separate, equally rigorous assessment of global experience with smaller class sizes, released in 2018 by The Campbell Collaboration, a non-partisan Norwegian public policy think-tank, reports, “Class size reduction is costly and the available evidence points to no or very small effect sizes of small classes in comparison to larger classes.” The study suggested that, paradoxically, smaller classes can lower performance by some students, since they rob resources from elsewhere in the school system. And then there’s the demographic wrinkle that Ontario’s student body is flat-lining as the ranks of teachers continue to swell. One wonders where and how they are all being deployed.

As for online learning, it is now widely accepted as a crucial part of the post-secondary and working worlds. It simply makes sense for high school students to have some exposure to this important skill of self-education, something they will need their whole lives long. Of course unionized teachers don’t see it as an opportunity for schoolkids, but rather as a long-term threat to their own job security.

Unfortunately, there has been little rigorous discussion of any of these facts during Ontario’s current teachers’ strike. As is the case with most public-sector strikes, all that really matters is the amount of pain being inflicted on the public. Recall the days of yore when postal strikes could bring an economy to its knees. All too often, governments cave as soon as voters start to feel any significant discomfort; most politicians’ pain threshold is remarkably low.

Taylor - Inset 5 (above)
Research contradicts the official line: Class sizes and e-learning are among the flashpoints in Ontario’s teachers' strike.
Research contradicts the official line: Class sizes and e-learning are among the flashpoints in Ontario’s teachers' strike.

Thankfully, this time the Ford government has adopted a clever, if under-appreciated, strategy to shift the union-favouring power imbalance and give itself more time to negotiate. The government’s recently unveiled “Support for Parents” compensation plan offers daily payments of $25 to $60 per child, depending on age and need, to parents who find their kids locked out of school due to strike action. This money is meant to offset the cost of daycare and other child-minding requirements that may arise. 

The market has responded with a huge selection of child-care and day-camp options in areas beset by school closures. The market rate for public school-aged children appears to be around $40 to $50 per day, or close to what the government is offering. Union leaders have predictably dismissed these payments as “a bribe aimed to bust the union,” and a few parents have loudly declared their intention to refuse the money, or donate it to teachers’ strike funds. But by and large, the uptake seems impressive. As of last week, the Education Ministry reported it had received over 600,000 applications for the payments. 

Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris pioneered the use of financial assistance to parents during his own fractious – and ultimately victorious – encounter with striking teachers in 1997. Back then, it was $30 per day. In 2014, B.C. adopted a similar approach during its lengthy, and largely successful, labour dispute with its teachers, at a cost of $40 a day. Today it’s up to $60, but should nonetheless be considered a bargain. 

An elegant solution: The Ford government’s per-child subsidy for strike-burdened parents was pioneered by former Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

According to Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, the province spends about $60 million per day on teachers’ salaries. Providing daycare subsidies to every eligible parent in the province would cost an estimated $48 million per day. So what appears to be a steep bill in fact represents savings of at least $12 million per day. While no one claims a day camp is a proper substitute for school classes, the payments are significant in that they dramatically alter the political pain dynamic. Offering a modicum of relief to parents during a prolonged teachers’ strikes reduces pressure on the government to settle early and improvidently. The payments allow for meaningful and, if needed, lengthy negotiations. 

While pro-government voices in Ontario, such as the Toronto Sun, have begun calling for back-to-work legislation to force teachers into the classroom, this sort of legislative hammer should be avoided as long as possible. Outside of a few truly vital job categories, every worker ought to have the right to withdraw their labour to settle a dispute over wages and working conditions. And this applies equally to teachers, regardless of the size of their paycheques or the length of their summer holidays. Besides, when B.C. tried ordering teachers back to work in 2012, the province lost the resulting court case.

Stephen Lecce, Ontario’s Minister of Education, estimates the payments to parents will save at least $12 million per day.

Permanent, long-term solutions to difficult labour issues can only be achieved through time-consuming negotiations in which both parties wield equivalent power and face similar losses. Parental support payments thus play an important role in mitigating the pain felt by parents and, thus, the governments those parents have helped elect. Yes, there will still be costs to the public, but less than they otherwise would be. And the longer the strikes go on, the more teachers will feel the bite of their foregone paycheques as well. 

One assumes Alberta’s UCP government is watching all this rather closely, as it conducts Act I of what will likely be an intense drama with its own public-sector unions over compensation, job security, numbers and working conditions. The United Nurses of Alberta, for example, last week staged rallies in 25 towns and cities to protest impending government spending cuts and contracting out of hospital support services, and were supported by Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members. Teachers, similarly, are trying to make the case that the province is cutting education funding.

Alberta is next: United Nurses of Alberta members rally against impending cutbacks at the Alberta Legislature.
Alberta is next: United Nurses of Alberta members rally against impending cutbacks at the Alberta Legislature.

Talk of strikes is already in the air and things are almost certain to intensify when Jason Kenney’s government tables its first budget on Thursday of next week. The NDP and previous Progressive Conservative governments handed down massive deficits. Now, spending cuts – or at least attempts to do so – are universally expected. The 10-month-old UCP government’s still-high popularity and widespread public acceptance of the need to tame the deficit may somewhat insulate it from the unions’ wrath – but that will carry it only so far. Creative thinking will also be necessary. Parent payments are a prime example. 

In fact, directing the savings generated by a teachers’ strike into the pockets of those so inconvenienced seems like such a good idea it deserves serious consideration across all public-sector labour disputes. After a garbage strike in Windsor, Ontario in 2009, for example, the city sent rebate cheques of $72 to every home, in partial compensation for the bother of having to haul their own refuse. Payments of this kind also serve as a handy reminder that it’s taxpayers who foot the bill whenever public-sector contracts come up for renegotiation. It’s their money to begin with; if it isn’t being spent, it should be returned to them.

If the teachers in Ontario wish to gird themselves for a long, drawn-out strike, they do so knowing parents won’t be suffering quite as much as they might have hoped. Consider it $60 a day well spent. 

Peter Shawn Taylor is Senior Features Editor at C2C Journal and a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario.

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