CANADA

CLASS ACTION

TO BOLSTER HIS RE-ELECTION BID, CLYDE WELLS IS TAKING ON NEWFOUNDLAND’S TEACHERS UNION

JOHN DeMONT May 3 1993
CANADA

CLASS ACTION

TO BOLSTER HIS RE-ELECTION BID, CLYDE WELLS IS TAKING ON NEWFOUNDLAND’S TEACHERS UNION

JOHN DeMONT May 3 1993

CLASS ACTION

CANADA

TO BOLSTER HIS RE-ELECTION BID, CLYDE WELLS IS TAKING ON NEWFOUNDLAND’S TEACHERS UNION

The halls were nearly deserted as 26 local teachers gathered one evening last week at G. C. Rowe Junior High School in Comer Brook, Nfld. This time, it was their turn to listen. With a provincial election only weeks away, the teachers sat attentively as their union representative outlined the strategy to topple Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells in his home riding of Bay of Islands, which includes part of Comer Brook. Along with the province’s other 9,000 teachers, teachers in the Comer Brook area found themselves thrust into the campaign spotlight on April 6—the day after Wells called the election for May 3—when the premier launched a blistering attack against teachers and their threat to strike if the Liberal government acts on its plan to save money by reducing its contributions to the teachers’ pension fund. His remarks have clearly galvanized many Newfoundland teachers. “Politics is something I have always steered clear of,”

declared Margaret Jenniex, 46, a kindergarten teacher from Meadows, just across the bay from the province’s second largest city, who attended the Comer Brook meeting. “But I felt I had no choice but to get in the fight.”

That fight may yet change the complexion of a campaign that has, in its early stages,

lacked the dramatics of previous Newfoundland elections. Throughout the province, teachers and other public servants are rallying to defeat Wells, whose strategy to deal with his impoverished province’s dismal financial situation also calls for reducing government contributions to other public sector union pension funds. In response, the province’s public service unions have launched an extensive anti-Wells advertising campaign and thrown their support behind Conservative and New Democratic candidates. Some observers predict that the anger among unions and their supporters over Wells’s attack will translate into setbacks for the premier on election night. “It could go down as one of the classic campaign blunders,” said Mark Graesser, a political science professor at Memorial University in St. John’s.

But among Newfoundlanders, there is much support for the premier—and little sympathy for the concerns of teachers and other public servants. ‘The teachers have good jobs and good benefits,” said Ellis Ruth, a resident of Summerside, also across the bay from Corner Brook. Added Ruth, who recently lost his job when the small fish plant where he worked closed its doors: “Clyde’s doing what he can—there’s just no more money around.”

Wells, who first came to power in the provincial election of April, 1989, has certainly trumpeted that grim message during the campaign, repeatedly speaking of the need for higher taxes and spending cuts. And, in fact, few Newfoundlanders expect the Liberals to be defeated. At the time of the election call, the party held 33 seats in the 52-seat provincial legislature, compared to 16 for the Conservatives, led by former provincial cabinet minister Len Simms, and one seat for the New Democrats—held by party leader Jack Harris (one seat was held by an Independent while another was vacant). And according to a February opinion poll, Wells enjoyed 69 per cent support among decided voters, with only 21 per cent supporting the Conservatives and eight per cent the New Democrats.

Still, spokesmen for the teachers association say that they had little choice but to adopt a tough anti-government stand. After wage freezes in 1991 and 1992, they say that teachers had sacrificed enough to help the government in its attempts to curb the provincial deficit—which rose to $81.6 million for the 1992-1993 fiscal year, compared to $36.9 million in 1991-1992. Says union president Morley Reid: Targeting a single group for the province’s economic woes is simply intolerable and irresponsible.”

Tie teachers hope that the sense of trust they have established within their communities, particularly in rural areas of the province, will help sway Newfoundland voters to their side. Harry Hunt, who teaches English at Templeton Collegiate in the small town of Gillams, near Meadows, is a prime example of how central teachers can be to the life of small communities. Outside of the classroom, the 44-year-old father of three maintains a busy schedule: he serves as a volunteer fireman, the treasurer for his church, the school’s Lions Club representative and as a Remembrance Day organizer for the Cana-

dian Legion. Says Hunt: “If there’s a job to be done around a small community, people invariably turn to the teacher first.”

But familiarity does not always breed sympathy. Last week, when Hunt left his Grade 12 classroom for a few moments, some students said that not everyone feels that Newfoundland’s teachers—who make an average of $40,000 annually and are often among the most prosperous residents in small villages— have much to complain about. “Some of the parents think they make too much and have it too easy,” said Trevor White, 17. Added Kimberly Matthews, also 17: “Everyone complains about the state of Newfoundland, but nobody seems ready to make the sacrifices needed to do something about it.”

That sense of frustration and futility is expressed again and again across the province, which is undergoing its worst economic crisis since joining Confederation in 1949. The fishery has been particularly hard hit as a result of last July’s two-year ban on northern cod imposed by federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, himself a Newfoundlander. The province’s unemployment rate stands at 19.6 per cent—compared to a nationwide rate of 11 per cent. Says Eldon Brake, 36, of Gillams, who owns a construction firm and takeout restaurant close to Templeton Collegiate: “If the teachers think they have it tough, they should look at all of the people around here who are on welfare and unemployment insurance.”

Other Newfoundlanders express similar views. During an April 20 straw poll on Nightline, a province-wide phone-in radio show aired by the St. John’s-based VOCM radio network, 69 callers said that they supported Wells’s Liberals, many of them because of the premier’s stance on teachers. By comparison, only 29 callers expressed support for the Conservatives, while four picked the New Democrats. Notes Roy Mercer, a guidance counsellor at Northshore Elementary School in Meadows: “Wells made a smart political move by tapping into the envy that many average Newfoundlanders feel towards teachers.” It may be more than enough to return his Liberals to power for a second term.

JOHN DeMONT