I've been hearing from a lot of angry teachers lately. They say the media just don't get it. As they see it, the Ontario government has bargained in bad faith and stripped away their democratic rights. It's not about the money. It's about respect. And if boycotting extracurricular activities is what they've got to do, then that's what they'll do. A significant minority of teachers, in fact, think their unions haven't been tough enough.
But other teachers see it differently. They think their colleagues' culture of entitlement will have to change. Their pay and perks ($90,000-plus at the top of the grid) are the envy of North America. Their pension plan is well funded and secure. Sure, the government has been heavy-handed. But the unions have been worse. "I am embarrassed for the first time in my professional life," one long-time kindergarten teacher wrote me. "I'm ashamed at how we have escalated this dispute and used the children as cannon fodder for our grievances."
You won't hear much from these teachers, because they need to get along. They don't want to be shunned or ratted out. And the price for breaking ranks is high. If you're caught coming to school too early or staying too late, or sneaking in some extra help outside of regulation time, someone will report you to the union. If you don't show up for strike duty, you could face a stiff fine. The union-issued lists of dos and don'ts go on for pages, and include such minutiae as whether teachers are allowed to collect money for pizza days (no).
These tensions are a part of any labour dispute. But it's different when kids are involved. Kids aren't auto parts; they're the ones to whom a teacher owes her primary allegiance. Their well-being is at the heart of the social contract – the one that can't be negotiated or written down.
A lot of teachers know this, and it infuriates them. "If extracurriculars are voluntary, then how can anyone tell me NOT to volunteer?" writes a teacher on the Toronto Sun website. "I ran my activities until Dec., when they officially told us to stop – only because I am surrounded by hotheads who would make such a great job hell for me later. Sorry for ranting, but I am fed up. I want to do my job, I want to be with my students."
Extracurricular activities may sound trivial, but they're not. "Student success comes from playing a musical instrument, track and field, journalism club, safety patrol," one teacher wrote me. "These are the moments that kids will remember and grow from." For students whose strength isn't academics, extracurriculars may be their strongest bond with the school.
Teachers are neither spoiled brats with easy jobs nor living saints on whom the future of society depends. Most are conscientious people who do fine jobs. But some teachers really do live in a bubble. If I hear one more defence of extra sick days ("We work with kids who are full of germs, so we catch everything"), I'll throw up.
The unions are right when they argue that the stakes are high. But the real fight isn't about the rights of teachers. It's about the power of the unions, which are under siege because of straitened public finances and changing attitudes. In a recent opinion poll conducted by the Toronto Star (taken before this week's one-day strike in the GTA), nearly half of those surveyed said they didn't think the teachers' protests would work, and almost two-thirds disapproved of the withdrawal of extracurricular activities.
In a world of shrinking resources, confrontations like these are increasingly inevitable. No one knows when and how this one will end, but it's the unions that are bound to lose. Ontario's different teachers unions (some of which have settled) have been unable to deliver a coherent message, and the government has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy. The unions feel betrayed by the Liberals, who've been long-time allies. But the Conservatives under Tim Hudak, who's threatening to bring in Michigan-style "right to work" legislation, would be much worse.
Teachers don't deserve to be bullied by their unions. Unfortunately, the unions are still run by people who think that old-style labour tactics will work in the modern world. They'll find out soon enough they're wrong.