The Ontario government has diverted political staff to a campaign-style war room as it battles teachers’ unions. The unions are taking their fight to social media, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertisements decrying Premier Doug Ford’s cuts.
As tensions between the province and education unions continue to rise, both sides are playing the public-relations game, looking to win over popular opinion in a fight that, as of now, appears to have no finish.
Ontario is standing firm on capping raises at 1 per cent for three years, focused on a public message that teachers in the province already earn among the highest salaries nationally. Education unions, meanwhile, are appealing to families through social-media campaigns, highlighting how the government will erode public education through class-size increases and mandatory online learning.
For the Progressive Conservative government, the PR battle involves lining up dozens of interviews a day for Education Minister Stephen Lecce and other MPPs; doing outreach to non-English-speaking media; and periodically pulling in outside political staff to help with communications and strategy.
The informal arrangement means staffers from other areas of government, including the Premier’s Office, are lending their efforts on an as-needed basis to Mr. Lecce’s team. The strategy is labelled by insiders as a “war room,” although the Premier’s Office is taking a less combative tone.
“I wouldn’t call it a war room. We call it a peace room. ... Basically any time government has a heavy [workload], we pull in resources,” said Laryssa Waler, Mr. Ford’s executive director of communications.
Ms. Waler said the arrangement, which she stressed is not formal, has been continuing since at least the fall. In October, the province reached a deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 custodians, secretaries and educational-support workers, averting a strike. However, all the main teachers’ unions in the province are involved in some type of job action, from work-to-rule to one-day walkouts.
The government’s approach has been to appeal directly to parents, including through the recent subsidized child-care initiative, to appear as reasonable and understanding as possible during negotiations. Mr. Lecce, for instance, recently tweeted a video compilation of news headlines about previous teachers’ strikes, declaring “this needs to stop.”
Pat Sorbara, a long-time Liberal political operative and the author of Let 'Em Howl: Lessons from a Life in Backroom Politics, said the current situation reminded her of the job action education unions took under former Liberal premiers, although it was never a full strike by several unions.
She said that history shows that parents are more likely to support teachers than government. “I don’t know why [the government is] putting so much time and energy into trying to make the unions the bad guy, because that tactic has proven over and over to never work," Ms. Sorbara said.
However, Deb Hutton, who was a senior adviser to then-Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris in the late 1990s, said at a certain point the unions will “overstep” with their strike action, which would alter public support. Already, she said the elementary teachers’ union made a “strategic mistake” in telling its members not to electronically input data for Term 1 report cards as part of its job action.
“I don’t think I believe the public has made up its mind fully yet. I think they’d like it to be settled. But I don’t sense a massive desire for the government to cave,” Ms. Hutton said.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said his union, which includes teachers and education workers, has taken a more “measured” approach in job action in order to not alienate the public “whose support we need.”
He declined to reveal the amount OSSTF has spent on advertising, citing privacy reasons. However, in the past 90 days, OSSTF spent $329,318 on a single Facebook page, the most of any organization or group currently paying for advertisements online, according to Facebook’s ad-transparency tool.
In its job action, OSSTF has limited its work-to-rule actions to administrative tasks, and staged rotating one-day walkouts at selected locations. It held one province-wide strike in early December, shutting down all public high schools. But the union has not withdrawn its participation in leading extracurricular activities, as it did in late 2012 under then-Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
“To a greater extent this time, we have very strategically taken on the public-relations aspect of this conflict,” Mr. Bischof said.
Unlike the government, which has pushed the compensation message and attacked union leaders, OSSTF has been focused on cuts being proposed to the classroom – a message that he said resonates with parents.