It disrupted the school year for students, some of whom continue to be denied extracurriculars. It could make it more difficult to get buy-in from teachers for education improvements going forward. And it fractured the coalition of support that has kept the governing Liberals in power for nearly a decade.
No wonder Ontario’s fight with its two biggest teachers’ unions has been seen as a battle of mutual destruction, with kids and parents caught in the crossfire. But while that picture is not inaccurate, it’s also not complete. Because it bears noting, as the dust starts to settle, that by a certain standard it was also a success.
Last spring, the Liberals’ willingness to take a hard line with teachers was held up as a test of their seriousness about using wage restraint to help get out of deficit. It was one thing to impose measures on doctors or other professions not aligned with them politically. To risk alienating long-time allies would be a different matter.
Whatever else he failed, then-premier Dalton McGuinty passed that test. His government negotiated a deal with the most compliant of the unions, representing Catholic teachers, then imposed it on the bigger ones when they wouldn’t play ball – freezing cost-of-living increases, ending the banking of sick days and forcing a few unpaid days off.
While there is no way of knowing exactly how much impact that had on other public-sector labour negotiations, the evidence suggests that a message was heard.
Consider the Ontario Medical Association, which through last summer tried to get the government to back down from fee cuts imposed after talks broke down last spring. After the teachers’ contracts were imposed, the two sides returned to the table, and the OMA negotiated a range of cost-containment measures palatable to its members.
More striking was the case of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which had made angry noises about the government’s plan to freeze the wages of its 35,000 members. It cannot have been lost on its leadership that if the Liberals were willing to risk the wrath of teachers, they probably weren’t too worried about civil servants.
It’s an unlikely coincidence that, early this year, OPSEU agreed to a two-year deal that included a cost-of-living freeze and a few other concessions. So too, in the meanwhile, did the union representing civil-service managers.
Even the teachers themselves may have taken a hint from what happened to them. As reported this week, they’re close to a deal to freeze pension contributions for five years, something the government hinted in last year’s budget that it might simply legislate – a threat that would have to be taken seriously of late.
Before giving the Liberals too much credit, there are a few big caveats, starting with the help they got from their political opponents. By most accounts, the stridently anti-union agenda of Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives – who could win power before long – made the current government more appealing to deal with.
For their part, the Liberals made the turmoil in schools worse than it needed to be. Particularly ill-advised was their attempt to turn the issue to their advantage during a pivotal by-election, which succeeded only in causing teachers to dig in. And from the moment Mr. McGuinty tried to communicate with teachers through a YouTube video, communications were weirdly ham-fisted.
Finally, there are valid questions about how much these contracts will achieve in the long run. The Liberals could have done more to target the salary grid that causes younger teachers’ pay to quickly
escalate, and governments tend to make up for cost-of-living freezes in future deals. There are already signs of that being new Premier Kathleen Wynne’s intention, as she tries to rebuild goodwill.
But if nothing else, the government eased short-term cost pressures, somewhat limited accumulated debt, and took a few steps toward bringing public-sector entitlements closer to private-sector realities. That applies both to teachers and others who got the message. And for those of us who play armchair quarterback, it is only fair to note that the Liberals did something close to what we said they should do in the first place.