Here’s why Ontario teachers’ unions are still “fighting” Doug Ford

If you’re hearing Doug Ford saying he loves teachers in one breath and bashing teachers’ unions in the next, here is something you should know.

He is an actor, telling his audience a made-up story. He’s working hard to get the Ontario public to believe in – and condemn – the faction he’s chosen to be the “bad guy” in his story: teachers’ unions.

He says he’s “begging, now, for the teachers’ unions to work with us.”

He says he’s talked with every organization possible in the entire country, including labour groups, and teachers’ unions are the only ones “not cooperating.”

“We’ll work with you. Everything that you’ve wanted, we’ve given you,” he says. He maintains that he’s given us ventilation, “more money for the teachers”, “more cleaning,” and “basically covered every single list.”

“And I’m just asking – just once – for your cooperation.”

He invokes the heroism of PSWs working in long-term care homes, grocery store clerks, and of course health care workers, working through the peak of the pandemic in the province without complaint.

“And then we create the safest environment we possibly can for everyone… and the teachers’ unions just want to fight.”

It’s quite the performance. He’s clearly baffled, exhausted by the bad guy’s behaviour. Every vocal inflection, every gesture underlines his weary incomprehension. Such pathos.

I’d like to address this carefully-crafted little monologue.

  • He is not begging teachers’ unions to work with his government. The unions, back in March, asked and asked to be included in the planning process, but were shut out. Teachers got to know the government’s plan at the same time as everyone else in the province – when it was announced. What he is doing is begging unions not to object to the situation schools are currently in. Which, among other troubling aspects, includes classrooms like this:

Ontario classroom with 29 student desks

  • If you’re wondering how many students are currently planned to be in this junior classroom, it’s twenty-nine. If you’re wondering whether 2-metre distancing is possible here, the answer is don’t make me laugh. If you’re wondering whether 1-metre distancing is possible here, the blunt answer is No. A very optimistic answer might be Well, in some spots… if nobody moves. Really, Doug? You’ve created the safest environment you possibly can for everyone?
  • This example is one classroom in one school, but I know for a fact that it is not just one isolated case of classroom crowding in our school board. These numbers may improve (and I hope they will!!) but the fact remains that this is what the “plan” allows for. Classes of 25-30 are numbers that are manageable (though not ideal) at normal times, but are not keeping people safe in an epidemiological crisis.
  • When Ford said he’d given “more money for teachers,” he meant hiring more, ostensibly so that the above could be avoided. After all, this kind of crowding is not allowed in grocery stores, movie theatres, waiting rooms, post offices, malls, restaurants… But where did that funding (most of which came from school boards’ reserve funds) go? Some families have opted for at-home learning; some teachers have decided (or been asked to volunteer) to teach online; some classes have been reorganized or eliminated during that shift. So assuming that new teachers have been hired, there still aren’t enough to consistently avoid crowding. As a parent and as a teacher, I’m very upset by this.
  • What I personally know about cleaning is that however many custodians have been hired, cleaning protocols are extensive (as they should be), such that the custodians have had to give up some of their normal duties to attend to the new standards.
  • When he says he’s given us “what we wanted”, he is using language that likens Covid-19 protocols to bargaining issues. We didn’t “ask for” better ventilation, extra cleaning, and so on; those are crucial prerequisites for opening schools. They’re public health requirements. This use of “want” is misleading (and irrelevant) in this situation.
  • Obviously, we recognize the heroism of the people who have been working hard on the front lines and in essential services through the most dangerous phases of this pandemic. I hope that all Ontarians understand and appreciate – preferably aloud – the risks and sacrifices that have been required of these workers.

And now, Ford is trying to put educators into his hero box. He “loves” us, calls us incredible (as well he might, because we are pretty damn awesome). But here, he’s shown his hand a bit too conspicuously. 

He tells us that he meets lots of teachers on the road, and practically every one who speaks to him says, “I apologize for the way the union is acting.”

He says, outright, “I totally differentiate between the two,” referring to teachers and their unions.

He says, “These people [teachers] are gonna be heroes, and these people [unions] wanna fight. I don’t wanna fight with you.”

What a transparent, simple-minded scheme. For any readers who, like Doug Ford, have missed this little tidbit of information: teachers’ unions are UNIONS… of TEACHERS.

Sorry, I’m not falling for this hackneyed “divide-and-conquer” bit. You can’t pit me against my union. Before teachers’ unions, teachers were barely trained, paid a pittance, and could be fired on a whim. Female teachers were paid literally half as much as their male counterparts – and were also expected to singlehandedly clean their own classrooms, make food for children, and never marry.

I owe every hard-fought step of progress since then to my union. Improvement of working conditions is what allows teachers to focus on the education of children and the constant enhancement of their practice. Better education uplifts society. To me, this seems like a worthy goal.

I don’t “apologize for the way my union is acting,” as Ford claims teachers have done in his presence, because although it’s impossible for one union to fully represent every single opinion of all of its teachers on every issue, education in Ontario would be a sad sight without this solidarity, and the generations of united work that have gone into the profession of educating children.

Furthermore, educators have not forgotten the way we were treated a few short months ago, when Ford was not “differentiating” between teachers and unions. We clearly recall being treated as unreasonable (among other things) by this very same government, as we worked to protect the students we serve. Doug can say nice things now, but we have not forgotten his insulting rhetoric. We remember the unity of our protests, and we remember that the union had our backs, in the best interests of education, when the government had abandoned educators and students alike.

Right now, my elementary teachers’ union is objecting to the “plan” that allows for twenty-nine 11-year-olds in a room where they cannot even achieve the minimum distances (indoors, for hours a day) recommended by Public Health. I emphatically believe that Ontario teachers would be united in this objection. And families too, for that matter.

Ford claims that he is “always going to listen to the doctors.” Here’s what doctors say:

“Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case. Several jurisdictions have reopened schools with maximum class sizes ranging from 10-15. However, there is limited evidence on which to base a pre-specified class size. Decisions should take into account the available classroom space in addition to the number of exposures that would occur should a student or staff test positive.”

What the government has demonstrated here is that 1) they have no actual idea of how schools work in this province, and 2) they aren’t bothering to find out.

We, the educators, are stepping up – as Doug Ford said we would. We are doing what we can to prepare while still waiting for confirmation of what we are teaching, and when (schedule-making can’t happen until hiring is done). We are figuring out how we will keep school compelling without group work, assemblies, close-contact sports, singing, musical instruments, shared materials, or the ability to see each other speaking. We are bracing ourselves, trying to work out the intricacies of getting students in and out of the building, constantly washing hands, signing up for group bathroom breaks, making learning happen when people aren’t supposed to touch things other people have touched…

It’s supremely complicated, and we are doing the best we can with what we have. Which we have always done, but now it’s a much, much taller order. Right now, “doing the best we can with what we have” is educational institutions shouldering downloaded responsibility – and risk. This is what we are expected to do, to make the government’s plan look legit.

Doug, we don’t want to “fight with you” either. We don’t want to “play politics” – that’s your thing. Our jobs are about the children and families and staff in our school communities. We’d just like to be afforded the same respect that all Ontarians deserve.

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12 Comments

  1. Excellent piece. It should go to the Opinion Page editor of your paper, the Toronto Star, the Spec, the Globe and Mail, etc. Well, it’s probably too long for any of those (750 word limit at the Spec), but maybe it could be trimmed. Or made into two parts! Keep people on the edge of their seats waiting for the second installment!

    1. The news media most times only lets the politicians talk and convince us that the ‘Unions’ are the bad collective group who are fighting or disagreeing with the government. Let’s have the Whole of media hearing the Union side of this and giving us the whole truth. This Provincial government has been very uncooperative from the beginning before the Virus hit us and is monopolising the media with their political advantage. Make sure when you read this article , that the facts speak for themselves.

  2. Excellent article that needs to go viral. I am a parent of an elementary and a high school student. I believe the teachers along with their unions have the best perspective to work together with public health workers creating the safest environment. Politicians driving these rules need to make our kids and their teachers safe. Yes the economy needs to be restarted but not at the expense of my kids.

  3. Unfortunately where was it’s all about the children when they were striking half way through the school before the pandemic. They missed soooooo much of school and then here you go kids ur in the next grade when some kids struggling with that grade.. did u notice that things that they were striking for they are doing when they closed the schools. For smaller class sizes, they been fighting that for over 30 years as long as I can remember and I am 37…. it was fine for me… why not now.. I wish I can have summers off and Christmas breaks. So they only thing they were truly fighting for is their pay.. that’s not the children.. let’s see what this year will bring or the next year or when their contract is up..

    1. Thanks for your feedback. It seems that you are missing quite a bit of information on the reasons behind teacher job actions earlier this year. If you would like to learn more, you could try reading this. Please also see the comment from 7 below in response to your comment.

  4. Excellent, well-written article.
    Our children/grandchildren are stepping into a minefield, not to mention the teachers and all school staff.
    I so hoped this would have been worked out WITH INPUT FROM THE TEACHERS months ago.
    I’m really honestly afraid for this to go ahead as planned.

  5. First off, I’m not even sure I completely understood what you were trying to say – grammar was a little… interesting.
    Second, teachers don’t get paid for the summer months. They also don’t get paid for many supplies they’re forced to buy with their own money. So yeah, it’s not as glorious as you think. Of course they fought for their pay.

  6. I honestly don’t think that Ford even realizes that it’s not all about teachers protecting themselves (obviously they’re entitled to that too, but …). Teachers are trying to protect the students and our society because they know what a real classroom is like and how unrealistic their “plan” is for an actual school day. They won’t insist on masks for little ones “because they won’t wear it,” but they expect all of them to sit perfectly still in their little square all day and not cross into anyone else’s personal space? I would suggest you TRY to get them all to keep their masks on (it won’t be perfect) and reduce class sizes enough that they have a little bit of room to wiggle around a bit… but he’s not listening. I sent emails but all I get back are form letters and I don’t think he’s even reading them.

  7. First of all, there were less strike days than snow days from the previous years. So to say that they lost sooo much school is a bit of an overstatement. Second, it was the government that mandated no one could fail and that there would be no marks for the pandemic learning. You are more than welcome to have summers off and Christmas breaks, become a teacher. Try to keep the conversation on the topic at hand. The government is neglecting all of its own rules when it comes to students returning to school. There is nothing in this situation that is safe and no where does it have anything to do with money for teachers.

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