Sunday, 7 April 2013

Well Worth the Fight

Labor Unions are the leading force for democratization and progress.
                                                                                   -Noam Chomsky

The discussions between the governing Liberals and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario are progressing well. So well, in fact, that a tentative deal regarding changes to the current contracts that were imposed under the infamous Putting Students First Act is reported to be close at hand.  The ETFO has come to a number of "understandings" with the governing Liberals, which could include improvements to maternity leave benefits and more favourable treatment of sick days.

As discussed in previous posts, the ETFO advised its members to suspend extracurriculars in protest of Bill 115 and the PSFA and to continue the protest until the ETFO was convinced of the government’s sincerity in pursuing meaningful discussions with the teachers. Convinced of this sincerity, the ETFO advised its members to reinstate extracurriculars.

This decision to suspend extracurriculars had led to even more ferocious attacks from factions of the government, particularly the Conservatives. The ETFO was often accused of jeopardizing the educational experience of the students in pursuit of their own interests. Now, despite Liberal and ETFO assurances to the contrary, the Conservatives allege that there must be a secret deal between the parties, thereby ascribing to each a sinister motive. Given the lack of evidence in support of this allegation, the motive has been left as vague as it is ambiguous.  

When asked recently if suspending extracurriculars had been worth the damage done to the students, Mr. Hammond disagreed with the overall assessment that the students had been harmed and asserted that the protest was well worth it, stating: “I would say to you, absolutely, the stand that we have taken, the position we've taken and the actions that we have implemented to get us to where we are have all been very much worth it."[1]

It’s difficult to imagine any right-thinking person could disagree with Mr. Hammond’s take on the matter. To even ask the question of whether the protests were worth it is to undermine the ETFO’s decision to suspend extracurriculars and to suggest that any improvements to the contracts is a minor victory won at a great cost. It is to ignore the importance of the rights the teachers’ unions have been defending. When the Liberals enacted the PSFA, they trampled the collective bargaining rights of organized labour and flouted the protections of the Charter, including the right to strike. Surely these rights are worth fighting for.

We all do well to remember that collective bargaining and Charter rights were not simply handed over to unions. These rights were hard-won through the tireless efforts of workers to be treated fairly and with dignity. Workers have died striving to secure and maintain such rights, rights which the PSFA severely curtailed. In ceasing extracurriculars, the ETFO used their restricted ability under the PSFA to oppose these repressive measures. To oppose this legislation was not only crucial to ensuring the government knows that unions will not be abused without a fight, it was vital to showing solidarity and respect for the past efforts of all working men and women who struggled for a better future for themselves, their families, and the country as a whole.

Apart from the obvious practicality of suspending extracurriculars, the fight of the teachers’ unions has been one of symbolic necessity. The ETFO has been engaged in a struggle to defend the past, present and future rights of workers in this province. To suggest that the alleged “harm” done to students through the suspension of extracurriculars may not be worth the ETFO’s protest efforts is to posit that children do not require the positive example set by unions defending their democratic rights. Indeed, it is to suggest that children are harmed by unions asserting their democratic rights. If one thing has long held true it is that children are not harmed by the democratic process. They are harmed, however, by submission to authoritarian disdain for citizens’ rights. In suspending extracurriculars the ETFO has done nothing less than hold the government to its democratic responsibilities, and that is well worth the while.   



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