Teachers should prioritize teaching over union activism

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Appeared in True North, October 2, 2023
Teachers should prioritize teaching over union activism

Suppose you asked a group of teachers why they entered the profession. What types of answers are you likely to get?

Most teachers will talk about their love of teaching students. Some have wanted to be teachers from a young age while others decided to enter the profession later in life. Either way, teachers are united by a common desire to be a force for good in the lives of children.

What you will not hear is that their main motivation was to become foot soldiers in the broader labour movement. Standing in front of a classroom is a lot more rewarding than standing on a picket line. For teachers in government-run schools where union membership is mandatory, they have no choice but to become union members. In other words, they joined the union because they wanted to teach, not the other way around.

Someone needs to remind Ontario union leaders of this basic fact.

Because there’s a real risk of a major teacher strike in Ontario this fall. Three out of the four teacher unions covering government-run schools plan to hold strike votes. If these votes pass, teachers could soon be on the picket line while students sit at home once again.

Fortunately, one union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), has chosen a different path. The province’s public high school teachers recently voted in favour of a deal with the province and their union to avoid a strike and keep students in class.

Sadly, instead of following the OSSTF’s example, the other three unions have flatly rejected binding arbitration. Instead, they’re continuing with their strike votes. It’s unlikely, however, they’ll get a better deal by striking. If the province was willing to legislate education support workers back to work last year, it will almost certainly do the same to teachers if necessary.

But consider this. Many of the arguments against binding arbitration focus on what’s best for the broader labour movement rather than on the day-to-day realities of the classroom. Insisting that teachers must be prepared to walk off the job even when they can get a better deal through binding arbitration shows what can happen when teachers put union activism ahead of their teaching responsibilities.

Ironically, some union activists openly acknowledge that binding arbitration would likely get teachers a better financial deal, yet still insist that teachers should go on strike to show solidarity with the broader labour movement. It’s bad enough when teachers put politics ahead of their students; it’s downright foolish if they strike just to show solidarity with other unions.

Keep in mind that not all teachers across the country currently have the right to strike. In Manitoba, for example, bargaining impasses are settled through binding arbitration. This arrangement has worked well for Manitoba teachers since their average salaries are higher than those of teachers in most other provinces. In addition, Manitoba teachers receive similar benefits compared to teachers in other provinces.

I’m now in my 24th year as a Manitoba public school teacher. Not having to worry about the possibility of a strike means I can focus on my work as a teacher and not on union activism. I’ve never had to walk a picket line, nor have I faced a loss of pay from a lengthy strike. Except for the last few years of unusually high inflation, annual salary increases throughout my career have generally kept pace with the cost of living.

Ontario teachers would do well to accept the provincial government’s offer of binding arbitration. Not only will it likely get them a better deal, it will also give students and parents peace of mind knowing that schools will remain open. This option is much better than a prolonged strike. Teachers belong in the classroom, not on the picket line.

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