Opening Statement



Monday, 6 October 2014

Why You Need A Teacher Union!



Why is being a union member important for you as a teacher? The union is first and foremost responsible for collective bargaining. That of course involves negotiating your salary and working conditions. It is quite understandable to be very cynical about how well our Ontario teacher union affiliates [AEFO, ETFO, OECTA and OSSTF] have recently represented you in that department. During the 2012-13 contract negotiations with the Ontario government they acquiesced to contract stripping, most notably of our sick day plans and the grandfathering of our retirement gratuities. The membership anger has been quite palatable.

Nonetheless it is very important not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. A change of leadership at all levels, along with major changes to your constitution and bylaws is your democratic right as a member. [1] [2] What shouldn’t change however, is our understanding that we still very much need teacher unions.

Despite the setbacks realize this: The salary, working conditions, and benefit terms of your teacher contract, including those lost through the concessions of 2012-13, were not given to you in the first place by either the school boards or the provincial government out of the goodness of their heart! Far from it! These gains were made through the hard work and sacrifices of our teachers as union members.

Suffice to say that because you have a teacher labour union to negotiate your salary and working conditions as public service professionals you have still gained a lot better work conditions and benefits than would otherwise be the case. It is highly unlikely that without our unions the powers that be would've given us these strictly out of the goodness of their heart. Our hard fought union gains include but are not limited to;



Legal Representation: Each of the affiliates retains a legal department to represent teachers who are treated unfairly or accused of breaking the law in the course of carrying out their duties. They also can help us grieve situations under Ontario’s Labour laws when administration or the school board make arbitrary decisions that violate our contractual rights. Sadly as we well know, school board contract violations still happen a lot and are an ongoing concern. What’s perhaps less well known is that the teacher unions now quite often win these cases for the members.  It can be a slow agonizing fight but Important new precedents are constantly being set on an ongoing basis to help all of us avoid encountering these same problems time and again. If it weren't for our union legal services few of us could afford to challenge contract violations including those for unjust treatment and dismissal. Without a union we wouldn’t even have a negotiated contract to set appropriate standards for our workplace salary, working conditions and workplace right as teachers!

Just Cause Dismissals:  Until quite recently the school boards had the managerial right to dismiss you without first providing just cause. They did not have to provide a proper warning or a chance to remedy the situation first, if they wanted to fire you. Although this is now recognized as our basic workplace right, it was an especially hard fought battle for our teacher unions during the 1990's!

Maternal and paternal leave: Here’s another important union stand: It was widely expected that women who got married should become a housewife or mother well into the 70’s. In the case of female Catholic teachers they automatically received pink dismissal slips when they got married! Stopping such unjustified dismissals and establishing the right to maternity or paternity leaves, were another hard fought union gain!

School Health and Safety: Over the last 10 years your teacher unions successfully lobbied the provincial government, most notably the MOE and MOL [Ministry of Labour] to include teacher safety at school as a working condition under the Health + Safety Act. Just like any other worker, you are entitled to protection from assaults, harassment and other unacceptable workplace hazards and conditions. The Safe Schools Act set the practices and standards for student safety. What many teachers don’t realize is that the Health and Safety Act has done the same for teachers at school. Hopefully most of us don't work in unsafe or unhealthy environments, but if you are assaulted, harassed or suffer any type of workplace related injury know this: The MOL can investigate and take action. Unfortunately that’s not to say that many school board administrators automatically will follow the new law in all cases, far from it! Still, through lobbying and legal action the union fight continues to guarantee your workplace safety according to the new standards that have been set. This has all ready begun to happen in some of our more challenging inner city schools here in Toronto even though it often remains an uphill struggle. Without our unions however, we would not even be covered by law vis a vis the Health and Safety Act.

Personal health care: We only have a national public health care system in Ontario and across Canada because the union movement pushed for it. As a teacher you have enjoyed a very good to excellent package of health benefits, despite the need to protect and even re-establish some of them during the current round of contract negotiations with the provincial government. We also know our students and/or their parents cannot be turned down for public medical care. Nor need working families be bankrupted from the attendant medical and hospital fees when sickness or injury occurs. It’s an excellent example of the big way our unions have helped advocate for a social net to help everyone, not just their own members. In many other well developed countries universal healthcare is just not the case!

Pro Rated salaries or paid summer vacations: Until the 1970's teachers were usually laid off for the summer and often had to find other summer work, perhaps flipping burgers or serving beer. Our salaries were also considerably less throughout the school year than they are now, even discounting inflation. Fortunately, our teacher unions fought for higher wages, spread out evenly across the year included in the terms of your teacher contract.
Before the 1970's the school janitor often earned more than you because they apparently did more hard work in physical terms, while all we did was talk, sit or work at a desk. We appreciate the hard often unrecognized work they do at school too. Still we now enjoy good pay, benefits, and working conditions equitable for the high professional training, standards and services we provide in the classroom thanks to our teachers unions.

Education Lobbying: Politically speaking our unions also provide a  provincial education lobby group. Who knows or understands Ontario’s education needs better than our teacher professionals whom are among the most highly trained and qualified in the world today. Our agenda is to protect and forward the cause of our profession, our students and our schools. It is a fact of political life that all interest groups lobby the political parties and government, during election years and throughout their terms in office or opposition be they corporate big business, or even teachers. The big difference often is that our union education lobby activities also advocate important social justice and labour issues for the families of the children we teach. We know that students suffering from poverty, abuse and so on, don't learn well in school. Add to that our professional pedagogical expertise and knowledge of education we cannot be just allowing other political, business or even school board administrators to be setting the agenda for education in our schools. Far from it. We saw our Ontario unions stand up to Conservative Party leader Tim Hudaks regressive labour plans, including his promised Right to Work for Less legislation when we helped make mincemeat of him in the spring election.




So the next time you hear somebody lamenting "big bad fat cat unions" in conversation or in the media please know that it is business and administration that stands to benefit most from that mindset, not you, as a teacher professional, or other workers who like us belong to a union. Firstly most of your officers, chairs and committee members, work tirelessly on a volunteer basis to help serve you through your union. Secondly, claims that our teacher unions are self-serving are even quite insidious when you consider all of the important standards and gains the union movement have made to protect the workplace terms, conditions and the dignity of labour, not just for union members but also for all working families in Ontario and across Canada.

As a member you have a vote, on everything from electing your executive to debating our important issues at our Unit and Provincial AGM's [Annual General Meetings], to approving your contract. One could even argue that in regards to direct member involvement we are more democratic than most groups, including the political parties who often criticize us the most. Unfortunately a lot of us don't exercise our vote. Next time you hear about a union meeting, activity, seminar or event, please come to participate. You will be pleasantly surprised how much your union reflects your interests as a professional and a union member, if you will only stand up, speak out and have your say.

RELATED READING:

Here's a guest blog proposal for a union member bill of rights @ Click!

Could electronic voting increase grassroots democracy in our unions? @ Click!

COMMENTS:

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hope our union does better than that ridiculous 5 July 2012 mou. At least we get a vote this time. THanks David for keeping us informed so we can hold our reps' feet to the fire.

Ms. Chievous said...

David,

I would submit that your comment that: " claims that our teacher unions are self-serving are even quite insidious" is naïve at best, especially when considering the recent actions of the former OECTA Provincial President, Kevin O'Dwyer coupled with the complicit behaviour of our illustrious General Secretary, Marshall Jarvis. More specifically, are you not aware that Kevin, the very same man who signed away all of the sick banks of every teacher in this province in August 2012 , without asking anyone else including OSSTF, then had the audacity, a year later (following his removal from office) to demand that his personal sick bank, acquired while at Dufferin Peel, be exempt from the MOU agreement and instead be transferred to his OECTA sick bank. To add insult to injury, when someone from OECTA Provincial objected ( I'll give you a hint- it's wasn't Marshall), O'Dwyer then filed a grievance (guess who footed both ends of that kick in the ass) to fight for protecting his sick days. Thankfully, an Arbitrator ruled against him and the mockery he made of the rest of us.

Now if that's not self serving...........what the hell is? David give your head a shake. OECTA is insidious.

David Chiarelli said...

The Oecta debacle has been exhaustively reported and commented on my site, by myself and others. Please see the archive below this blog column, especially for 2012-14. My point is that those who would do away with our unions, decertify or what have you, are not motivated by the reasons you give.

The union movement badly needs to be cleaned up and reconnected with its grassroots. Hence my focus on blogs such as that about a union member bill of rights, also on electronic voting. But done away with? No.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately David the union has lost a large majority of the young teachers. They make no effort to bring them on board and the executives need to understand the "same old, same old" does not engage the new breed. Enough with the stepped sanctions etc. young teachers do not like the public vilifying them. What the hell are you here to fight for would be a good first step. The post union activity of our former executives says it all!!

David Chiarelli said...

As a former local executive member, I usually took the portfolio for the reasons you proport. It is important to facilitate and advocate on the new teachers behalf, not to try to control or direct for ones own purposes. I had no problem with that on my OECTA TSU exec at the time, but I can't say for other unions + locals. Just a thought ...

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