GTA teacher asks: Could Wisconsin happen here?

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.. In the wake of unprecedented anti-union legislation many Wisconsin teachers are starting the 2011 school year without the right negotiate future collective agreements for anything other than salaries, which will leave them with no mechanism or organized voice to speak on behalf of the needs of the students they teach. This is thanks to the passage of the Budget Repair Bill, (now referred to as Act 10) introduced by the state’s Republican Governor, Scott Walker.
The bill denies most public sector employees the right to engage in collective bargaining for anything other than base salaries, which are henceforth to be capped at the Consumer Price Index. Furthermore, bargaining units now require annual certification votes and the payment of union representation dues is now voluntary.
What we have seen taking place south of the border last spring is nothing short of a legislative decimation of most public sector workers’ rights to negotiate for anything other than wages. Imagine if you were working under a collective agreement that could not legally address issues such as seniority, staffing, redundancy, harassment protection, performance appraisal, sick leave, health and safety and grievance procedures, to name only a few!

Granted, individual Charter rights cannot easily be legislated away (though conservative governments in Canada are trying their best). Indeed it is often in the name of individual rights that ideologically motivated governments have worked to eliminate collective bargaining rights.

It is the social mantra of the conservative political right to assume that our society and economy naturally empower all individuals to stand in equal power with everyone else. This ideological mindset naturally denigrates the need for collective advocacy and bargaining organizations like unions.  We must wake up to the reality that collective bargaining and all that it entails (including the right to strike) is not on its own a fundamental, legal right and as such it can, in whole or in part, be legislated away should the government in power be so motivated.

This is what we have seen take place in Wisconsin and it would be dangerously naive for us to think that the success of this Republican state government in busting union strength and collective bargaining rights is not being noted by their ideological protégés here in Ontario.

At first it all seemed so honest and fair!  Last February, Governor Walker’s stated motivation for the Budget Repair Bill was to address the state’s $137 million budget gap. Taking the governor at his word,   the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) was willing to do their fair share to help, even though unions were not responsible for the deficit.

“Right away we said we understand the crisis and that we will make concessions to help balance the budget,” said Betsy Kippers, vice-president of the WEAC.  Among the concessions offered by the state’s public school teachers was an increase in their individual pension contributions and an increase in individual health premiums.  “We agreed to this within days of Governor Walker saying that this is what he wants,”  added Kippers. “And then, of course, we found out that this was not really what it was about, he wanted to bust the unions.”

Ironically, the Budget Repair Bill would not result in any savings and it exempted law enforcement and firefighters, who are among the highest paid public servants, and strong Republican supporters. Under this bill only these public sector unions have full collective bargaining rights. It soon became clear that the Wisconsin governor’s intention was to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights to cripple a traditional pillar of support for the Democrats.

Kim Schroeder, Vice-President of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association said that without the ability to collectively bargain it will be difficult to maintain current working conditions. “Employment protection practices are only one small part of collective bargaining,” says Schroeder.  “We have had to put into contractual language such safeguards as ensuring when a student assaults a teacher, that the student not be immediately allowed back into the classroom.  Then there are other things that the state employment laws do not directly address like work day hours, the yearly calendar, teacher evaluation procedures, and salary schedules.”

“In my school we no longer will have gym, music, art, or library,” Schroeder adds. “My fourth grade class is likely to have 35 or more students and my school is the norm in Milwaukee. As for the professional autonomy, it will take a lot of courage to stand up for practices that you know to be successful, without the protection of a contract.”

It would be nice to believe that Wisconsin is nothing more than an extreme political anomaly that no Conservative or conservative-inspired government here would dare duplicate – but it’s not.

Here is what Ontario teachers should take from what has happened south of the border.

First, in spite of the rhetoric, unions are almost never seen as a “partner” when it comes to making sacrifices and doing their share of concessions with an administration that is ideologically opposed to unions.  Instead, unions are unjustly but invariably seen by the ideological right as an enemy that must be beaten into irrelevance. When was the last time you heard of a case in which unions have willingly made wholesale concessions when times were tight and got them all back when conditions improved!

Second, Wisconsin is a glaring example of a disturbing conservative populist trend that is unjustly blaming the union movement for the weak economy and, by extension, for the financial struggles experienced by individuals.

Third, we need to guard ourselves against short term, piecemeal steps taken by government, often in the name of individual rights and freedoms, whose true purpose is to erode the collective bargaining and advocacy power of unions meant to represent and protect their members.

For example, proposals in Ontario to eliminate third-party advertising (which only serves to stifle freedom of speech), platform promises that would restrict how unions use their dues and other election promises that would result in limiting union membership are totally reminiscent of Wisconsin.

Finally, we have to take to heart the fact that attacks on public school teachers are attacks on publicly funded education. The Wisconsin situation proves yet again that the ideological right is inherently opposed to publicly funded education and the social betterment and empowerment that it represents.

Robert Smol is a teacher with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and also works as a freelance journalist and columnist. This article was reprinted from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) publication Agenda (September 2011).  Thanks to Education Action: Toronto for circulation.

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