My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

We are not the enemy

Tomorrow my local district of OSSTF, the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, is holding its strike vote. This vote determines whether we union members give our leadership a mandate to engage in job action, once we are in a legal position to do so, if they feel it is warranted. This could take many forms, from work-to-rule to rotating strikes to an all-out strike. It’s not something we do lightly. Although the Ford government is sadly not unusual in its unproductive approach to bargaining with the unions of teachers, support staff, nurses, and other public sector employees, it is certainly more vicious and more perfidious. No other government has so quickly sought to shift the rhetoric and vilify hard-working people, like myself, for seeking to preserve the education system we have and obtain minimal cost-of-living adjustments to our wages.

At 30 years old, I’m young enough that the last time teachers went on strike in Ontario, I was affected as a student instead of a teacher. This is my 7th year of teaching. During the previous contract negotiations 4 years ago, there was some discussion of striking, and I wrote a defence of striking as a response to a letter to the editor published in our local newspaper. I stand by those words. Now I need to talk about a side-effect of what’s happening right now with the highly publicized bargaining and the rhetoric the government employs.

Separating it out for a moment, the government, by which I mean the two Ministers of Education and their representatives, have been fairly temperate. They’ve been misleading, sure, in how they represent the negotiation around average class size. They’ve engaged in fairly meaningless talk—because any time someone says “we’re committed to reaching a deal,” that’s a fairly vacuous statement. What else are government representatives supposed to say? Their hands are tied by the premier’s far more inflammatory and perhaps off-the-cuff remarks.

There was the time Ford warned teachers unions “not to strike”. Or that other time he told us not to strike—when he also mentioned how teachers have it really good right now and that our unions have “declared war on the government.”

Declared. War.

Here’s the truth that Doug Ford is trying to obscure with his vituperative bloviating: collective bargaining is messy, and strikes are an expected part of the system. Strikes are legal. (That is, until the government passes back-to-work legislation, but that’s a whole other discussion.) Ford is trying to shift the narrative to one where teachers holding our ground is unusual, seditious, and illegal. He’s essentially trying to roll back 100 years of labour movements and convince you, fellow Ontario taxpayers, that the government should call the shots, that the government should be able to unilaterally dictate the terms of contracts, and that public sector employees should be happy with whatever they can get.

By framing teachers as entitled, overpaid, and strike-happy, Ford is demagoguing in the basest way. He wants to make teachers seem greedy for refusing to take a pay cut to help with Ontario’s debt. He and the people who promulgate his rhetoric are happy to remind you that teachers make more than you already, have better benefits and better pensions, and therefore, we don’t deserve more—heck, we don’t deserve what we already have, because you don’t have it too.

Think about that for a moment. Instead of asking, “why should teachers get more?” shouldn’t the question be, why don’t you have it too?

Stop for a moment and put yourself in my shoes. You work hard every day. You spend hours, paid and unpaid, doing your job. Then you come home. And you read the headlines. And you see your premier, an elected representative of the people, vilifying you and your profession—some of the very people he is supposed to be representing. How would that make you feel?

We aren’t the ones making cuts to education. The government is doing that. I, personally, think we should spend way more on education, and I would happily pay more taxes to make that happen—but I respect your position if you disagree with me. Nevertheless, if your boss came to you and said, “we’re going to pay you less and give you more work to do, because we need to balance the books,” would you be happy? No. And if you had a legal mechanism of recourse to dispute that, wouldn’t you? I sure hope so—because you deserve to. You deserve a living wage and a strong education system. We all do. Except it seems that the Ford government doesn’t seem to think so.

Ford wants to frame this bargaining as a zero-sum game. If teachers maintain their salaries and benefits as they are now, you, the taxpayer lose. But it’s not a zero-sum game. This is one of the oldest plays in the book: the government is trying to pit us against each other, because if we fight with one another about who “deserves” a bigger salary, we don’t actually stand up to a government that would rather cut taxes for corporations and slowly choke the planet with carbon.

Teachers are not your enemy. I want to make a livable wage (incidentally, after 5 years with my school board, I still don’t make anywhere near the “average” wage of a secondary school teacher, so … yeah, a pay cut really wouldn’t be good for my mortgage payment right now). But I also want you to make a better wage. Upset that we have a better pension? Damn skippy you should be upset. But why don’t you have a better pension?

We’ve seen this tactic time and again: there are 10 cookies, and the rich person has 8 of them while you and I, we only have 2. Instead of the two of us working together to get more cookies, we allow the rich person to pit us against each other: “hey, that guy is going to take your cookie!” Maybe the problem isn’t the two of us. Maybe the problem is the part of our society with all the cookies.

We’re not the enemy here. We’re not the bad guys. And, contrary to what you might think from how I’ve positioned us in this post, I’m not trying to make teachers out to be the victims either. Rather, we are proxies in the government’s larger battle to dismantle services for the public good and impose austerity measures. So the next time Doug Ford or anyone else from his government opines in public on the teachers’ bargaining and how greedy or unreasonable we’re being, think about what they’re actually saying. Think about who’s actually benefiting if teachers were simply to capitulate to the government’s proposals. It wouldn’t be us, and it wouldn’t be students, and it wouldn’t be you.

The problems Ford is pointing to, this supposed inequity between teachers and private-sector employees … those are real inequities. But they’re not caused by teachers’ greed. They’re caused by the system in which we all live. And when we listen to rhetoric from populists like Doug Ford, those inequities don’t get better. They get worse, by design. The only way to stop inequity is to stand together and demand better from our government.