Only half a generation of school-children has graduated since teachers’ groups were at the height of their power. In the heady 1960s through the mid-1970s, teachers helped topple governments in British Columbia and Quebec, won wage increases of 40 per cent in New Brunswick and staged the largest demonstrations in Ontario history. Today, in terms of influence, those same associations are flunking out. While there have been recent indications of a return to teacher
The same teachers9 groups that once hounded governments have been humbled by restraint programs
militancy, most of Canada’s primary and secondary school instructors are limp in the face of cutbacks, wage restraints or the apparent inevitability of job shortages. Tom Hutchison, an assistant director of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), attributes the problems to changing times. “In the 1960s, in a climate of rising expectations and pupil numbers, it was easy to wield power,” he said. “But today the economic situation and a right-wing shift make our task difficult.”
Indeed, the same teachers’ groups that once hounded governments have been humbled by restraint programs and declining enrolments. More than 17,000 teaching positions have disappeared in Canada since 1977, and teachers’ federations across the country have been reeling from continuous setbacks. In British Columbia the teachers’ associations have been unable to dispel threats of layoffs next September despite an agreement to work five days without pay before the end of this school year. In Nova Scotia, Halifax teachers backed off from their attempt to win an increase of 16 per cent in benefits and instead opted to accept six per cent and the loss of 70 positions. In New Brunswick contracts are up for negotiation this summer, but the teachers are not feeling feisty. “There is an element of fear based on what we have seen in
other provinces,” says Dennis Knibb, principal of Saint John High School. Adds Malcolm Buchanan, president of the 35,000-member Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF): “Unfortunately, a great number of our colleagues are not prepared to strike.” In Ontario, Education Minister Bette Stephenson is proposing that compulsory membership in any of the province’s five federations be replaced by a system of “teacher self-government” in the form of a professional college of governors along the lines of provincial medical associations. Teachers fear
that dropping the compulsory membership will erode their organization’s strength. Buchanan and his colleagues are also infuriated by the unprecedented exclusion of Ontario teachers from consultation on proposed curriculum changes, the suspension of their right to strike and restraints on their wages under Queen’s Park’s “Nine-andFive” program. “It is like Poland without the guns,” Buchanan said. But when it comes to action rather than talk, teachers have been restrained— with the exception of Quebec, where militance flared briefly this winter with
a bitter strike and, two weeks ago, the union’s rejection of a conciliation report. Explains Buchanan: “A lot of our members bought the ‘big lie’ from the federal and provincial governments: ‘If you do not accept controls, you are not doing your fair share.’ ”
At the same time, as members of the eighth-highest-paid professional group in Canada, with generous vacation leave, teachers have felt that they have the public’s envy rather than its support. One indication was a 1982 poll by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) which found that only 30 per cent of the public in Ontario supported the teachers’ right to strike. Organized labor seemed equally unsympathetic—a perception that was given substance in January with the collapse of Quebec’s Common Front. On three previous occasions, the front’s combined might—300,000 public sector employee members—had won concessions from the provincial government. This time, the health and clerical workers abandoned the teachers to a solo showdown with the Quebec government over wage rollbacks.
But some teachers believe that a watershed has been reached. If the crushing of the country’s only remaining group of militant teachers was a low point, it may also have been a turning point. An anglophone veteran of the Quebec teachers’ strike, Robert Dobie of the Professional Association of Catholic Teachers is convinced that Premier René Lévesque has unwittingly forged a new unity between anglophones and francophones. “Yvon Charbonneau, president of the Centrale de l’enseignement de Québec (CEQ), used to refuse to speak English,” says Dobie. “Now he comes to our meetings, and we give him a standing ovation. I get the same treatment when I go to his.” Across Canada the Canadian Teachers’ Federation has collected more than $500,000 to support its Quebec colleagues. Even school boards have turned their traditional antagonism into fraternal solidarity. Two weeks ago three Montreal school boards risked the loss of $19 million in provincial education grants by shielding the names of teachers who had taken part in the strike.
“What happened in Quebec is happening to all of us,” explained the BCTF’s Hutchison, “and we are making more links to fight it than ever before.” Last week’s annual meeting of the BCTF was the best-attended in almost a decade. In a new, tough mood, delegates voted to strike if necessary to restore lost jobs and they strengthened a motion on maintaining salary levels into a resolution to increase pay. It was a startling development for a union that only two years ago was chastised by less militant members for being dominated by “activists more interested in political ac-
tion than in common classroom problems.”
Public alarm over the declining quality of education also helps teachers. Though polls do show public indifference to teacher-bashing on salaries or strike rights, Richard Townsend, professor of educational administration at OISE, points out: “The public has always been supportive of investing in education.” Indeed, a recent BCTF survey showed that 74 per cent of those polled opposed further cuts in education jobs, fearing the effect on the quality of their childrens’ schooling. In Ontario last year, a similar concern brought together a fierce coalition of parents, ratepayer groups, students and teachers to fight Bill 127, which opponents charged would centralize school boards and threaten programs and jobs in such special-interest areas as art and music. Though the bill passed, the OSSTF’s Buchanan warned that the still-flourishing opposition coalition could become the basis for future political action against Ontario’s ruling Conservative party. British Columbia has witnessed a similar outburst of parentteacher action, including a mass demonstration two weeks ago at the suburban Vancouver Delta School Board to win a larger school budget.
As education once again becomes a political football, teachers are in the thick of the play. The B.C. Teachers’ Political Action Committee, a factor in the Socred defeat of 1972, has been reestablished for the current election campaign. And, says Allen Blakey, TPAC’s co-chairman: “We will provide money to the candidates who have the best chance of defeating the government.” Ontario’s teachers flexed their political muscle last fall to help elect Robert Rae, leader of the provincial NDP—the only Ontario party to support the teachers’ right to strike. And in Quebec, where teachers were once the staunchest workers for the Parti Québécois, Michel Agnaieff, union communications director of the CEQ, claims that the PQ is now destroyed. “We will vote Liberal even if we don’t tell our wives about it,” he said.
It is highly debatable whether simple changes in tactics will enable teachers to squeeze more jobs, smaller classes and better working conditions out of tight-fisted governments. For John Lang, of the nationalist umbrella group the Confederation of Canadian Unions, that is the central conflict of Canadian labor today: “You could argue that public sector unions are at the cutting edge of the labor movement.” But certainly, if the backs of the teachers’ unions are to the wall, there is no sign yet that they have been broken.
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