Teachers Should Not be Allowed to Strike. Period

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Question: Who is most negatively affected by teacher strikes? Answer: Students. Logical conclusion: Teacher strikes should not be permitted.

It really is that simple. If student achievement is the top priority of our public education system, teacher strikes should never happen. No one can seriously argue that students benefit when teachers withdraw their services. Sadly, students often are punished in these labour disputes that have nothing to do with them.

The current dispute between the Ontario government and teachers’ unions in that province is a case in point. Earlier this year, the McGuinty government introduced Bill 115, which froze teacher salaries and rolled back sick leave benefits. Unsurprisingly, teachers’ unions expressed dismay at this erosion of their collective bargaining rights. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) recently ordered its members to withdraw from extracurricular duties and refuse supervision duties outside their classrooms.

Since Bill 115 was passed into law several months ago, it is highly unlikely these actions are going to make the government change course. Thus, not only are service withdrawals harmful to students, they are futile. Along with damaging the professional reputation of teachers, withdrawing from extracurricular activities serves only to embolden the government to undertake more draconian restrictions of collective bargaining rights.

To be clear, the McGuinty government isn’t exactly faultless in this matter. In fact, for the first nine year of its mandate the government did everything it could to favour teachers’ unions. Generous pay increases, improvements to benefits, and class size restrictions were only some of the policies that pleased union leaders. At first, it looked like a new era of labour peace had dawned on Ontario.

However, a massive $15-billion deficit brought the provincial government to reality. In an effort to reign in its ballooning debt, the government commissioned economist Don Drummond to evaluate its spending practices and to recommend changes. Among other things, Drummond encouraged the government to cancel costly initiatives such as full day kindergarten and class size restrictions. Interestingly, Drummond recommended against salary caps since they were not a long-term solution for out-of-control spending practices.

Instead of following Drummond’s advice, the government left full-day kindergarten and class size caps in place and went after the salaries and benefits of teachers. Teachers’ unions were understandably furious with the McGuinty government for seeking to roll back their previously negotiated pay increases. Unsurprisingly, the decade-long love affair between teachers’ unions and the McGuinty government quickly came to a crashing halt.

Both the McGuinty government and the teachers’ unions can share the blame for the labour strife now engulfing Ontario’s public education system. The government created the problem by capitulating to the economic demands of teachers’ unions for almost a decade and then unilaterally rolling them back. The teachers’ unions’ escalation of the problem with threats of strike action and withdrawal from extracurricular activities has caught students in the middle of a political squabble. They lose valuable teaching time and miss out on typically enriching extracurricular activities.

There’s a simple way to protect students from labour disputes between government and teachers’ unions: implement binding arbitration. That’s how teacher labour disputes are settled in Manitoba. Over 50 years ago the Manitoba Teachers’ Society voluntarily gave up the right to strike in exchange for binding arbitration of all unresolved labour issues. When school boards and teachers’ associations cannot agree on a collective agreement, an independent arbitration board makes the final decision. Strikes and other service withdrawals by teachers are not permitted, nor are lockouts by school boards.

The result of this approach has been decades of relative peace. Parents in Manitoba do not worry about classes being arbitrarily cancelled or teachers unilaterally withdrawing from extracurricular activities. Furthermore, salaries and benefits of teachers in Manitoba are similar to those of teachers in other provinces. In fact, all Manitoba teachers can look forward to 2 per cent raises for each of the next two years while the salaries of teachers in many other provinces remain frozen.

Removing the right to strike from teachers is in the best interests of all concerned. Instead of worrying about whether there will be school next week, parents can focus on helping their kids with their homework. Teacher strikes are bad for everyone and should be banned.