The McGuinty government was rocked Friday by news that a majority of Toronto-area students want to form their own union. Just a week after signing an agreement with catholic teachers, and mere days after public school teachers agreed to come back to the bargaining table, yesterday’s news promises to utterly transform one of the government’s most important files.
According to reports, a number of large unions, including CUPE, IATSE and the United Steelworkers, are already courting prominent Toronto-area student leaders. It is expected that any negotiation will include a list of long-standing student grievances. Top among them is the issue of merit based marking.
“Someone has to do something about all these losers who hog all the best marks,” said Stu, a grade 11 student at Central Etobicoke High School who did “brutal” in Functions and Applications this year.
His friend and co-organizer Luke says a union will be able to push for a “marks tax” on the top one per cent of students. “You have these total nerds who get, like 98 in Bio,” Luke explained. “We think they should give five or ten per cent of those marks to the students who get 45.”
“We have to stop rewarding greed,” Stu said.
Over at Parkside Elementary School in Scarborough, Isabelle, who is in grade seven, is also taking up the fight to make Toronto schools a closed shop. At the top of her grievance list: “geographism.”
“The way it works right now,” Isabelle explained, “is that you have to go to whatever school is closest to your house. But what if your best friend from music camp goes to a different school? How is that, like, fair?”
Sources in the Ministry of Education say the province is already close to signing a deal with elementary students with a benefits package that includes: cupcake Fridays, a ban on quinoa, and a 5.7 per cent increase in recess every year for the next four years, raising it to 20.9 minutes by 2017. (It is presently 15 minutes.)
But labour experts warn that signing one deal prematurely could hamstring future deals with other students. “How can the government say it’s okay for kindergarten students not to take final exams,” asked one labour relations expert, “but then force grade 12 students to just that? It’s a textbook case of ageism.”
While some on the right have been critical of students’ intentions to organize, defenders claim it’s a matter of survival. Olivia, a grade three student who lives downtown, points out that her educational assistant – along with 429 others – was fired largely because she wasn’t protected by a union. “If you look at the numbers, the biggest costs in education all come back to students,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time before Dwight Duncan comes after us.”
Other students see the cause in terms of social justice. “Every morning we have to show up for mandatory attendance,” complained Siobahn, a grade two rights activist from Cabbage Town. “It’s like legalized slavery.”
Siobahn’s solution is for everyone in the education sector to have a certain number of bankable “hooky days,” with unused days “cashed out” in the form of extra summer vacation. “Everyone plays hooky,” Siobahn points out. “The teachers have their professional development days, the maintenance workers hang out at Tim Hortons, and all those angry tax payers in the private sector meet ‘clients’ to play golf.”
“But for some reason,” Siobahn concluded, letting out a weary sigh, “students are the only ones who get in trouble for it.”