Time for Ontario Teachers to End Their Strikes

March 9, 2020 Updated: March 9, 2020
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After several months of job action, Ontario teachers’ unions finally got their concerns addressed. The Ontario government will not significantly increase average high school class sizes, and parents will be free to opt their children out of mandatory e-learning courses.

In other words, the unions won.

Class size and e-learning were the two biggest sticking points between the government and the teachers’ unions. While average high school classes will still increase slightly, from 22 students to 23, this is a far cry from the 28 students initially proposed by the government. Most high school teachers should have little trouble handling one extra student, particularly since their classes will still be smaller than average classes in other provinces.

As for e-learning, the parental opt-out provision essentially removes the mandatory nature of these courses.

Given the government’s significant concessions, teachers should now declare victory and take the proposed deal. For months, teachers’ unions declared they were concerned about the best interest of students. By leveraging the popularity of small class sizes with parents and pointing out legitimate problems with the mandatory e-learning courses, the unions amassed significant public support. In fact, opinion polls showed that more citizens agreed with the teachers’ unions than with the government.

Unfortunately, all four Ontario teachers’ unions have continued their job actions even though they won these two concessions. This state of affairs certainly seems to contradict their insistence that class size and e-learning were the two issues of most importance to teachers because they both affected students’ learning. Some union leaders had even hinted that they would accept lower salary increases if the government gave a little on class size and e-learning. Apparently, this promise was insincere.

At this time, two other issues remain unresolved. The unions want a 2 percent salary increase, while the government is offering a 1 percent increase. In addition, the government wants to scrap seniority-based hiring, which is currently entrenched in Regulation 274.

While the unions had significant public support for their positions on class size and e-learning, they do not have the same support for their salary demands or for maintaining Regulation 274.

Ontario teachers are, without a doubt, among the highest paid in the country. With average salaries of about $90,000, teachers are more than able to make ends meet, even in these difficult economic times. It is unreasonable for teachers’ unions to insist on salary increases that are higher than what most other government employees have received. Considering the huge provincial debt left behind by the previous Liberal government, public employees should be pleased they are getting increases at all.

In the neighbouring province of Manitoba, the provincial government recently mandated a two-year salary freeze for all public employees, including teachers. Even in the first two years after the salary freeze is lifted, Manitoba teachers will only receive increases of 0.75 in the first year and 1 percent in the second year. While Ontario’s proposed 1 percent salary increase is below the rate of inflation, it is reasonable when the massive provincial debt is taken into consideration.

As for Regulation 274, seniority-based hiring has been a disaster for many schools. Principals are forced to hire teachers on the basis of their seniority rather than on their merit. This hurts students because it makes it more difficult for principals to place the best teacher in each of their classrooms. It’s hard to imagine that most parents would support a teachers’ strike for the sake of seniority-based hiring.

Unions might think seniority is the only criterion that matters in hiring, but parents and students know better. For them, subject area specialty and classroom management expertise are more important.

The fact that teachers’ unions continue to talk about class size and e-learning rather than salary increases and seniority-based hiring reveals that they know they are likely to lose public support. This is why the unions are doing their best to show that these issues remain unresolved and constitute a major threat to the quality of the education their members deliver in Ontario. However, the claim that increasing high school class sizes by one student will cause a major disruption in classrooms strains credulity.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that while mandatory e-learning for high school students is a poorly conceived plan, it is reasonable for the province to expand the range of courses that are available to students, even if some are online. While it is preferable for this to be an opt-in process rather than an opt-out process, the end result remains the same. Since the vast majority of students and their parents oppose mandatory e-learning, most students will probably opt out of these courses anyway.

The time has come for Ontario teachers to declare victory and resume their regular duties. The provincial government capitulated on the two key issues that the unions claimed were of greatest importance. Remaining on the picket line sends the unfortunate message that teachers care more about their salary increases than their students’ education.

There is no reason to believe that the province will cave in to the teachers’ unions’ salary demands, and the province certainly has good reason to jettison seniority-based hiring. Thus, teachers have nothing to gain and much to lose if they remain on the picket line.

It’s time for Ontario teachers to get back to teaching.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.