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Teachers, Public Opinion, and Tough Times

By David Banerjee

Public sector professionals, such as elementary teachers, have doubts about the possibility of job action, especially given the difficult economic circumstances. Of particular interest is the reaction of the public to an assertive tone in negotiations. Do these workers, especially those with decent salaries and benefits, have public support? The following article attempts to shed some light on some of these questions by starting with a brief recap of recent economics.

You’ve never had it so mediocre!

As Professor Richard Wolff explains, economic productivity has been increasing fairly steadily in the United States (and the West in general) since industrialization almost two centuries ago. With that increase, the workers driving the economy have seen a steady increase in their purchasing power. As more goods and services become available by greater output, the working public can consume more because they have more money.

But since the 1980s and the advent of the ‘neo-liberal era’, productivity has continued to increase while real wages have levelled off. More stuff is being sold, but those sales have translated into profits instead of increased wages. These profits are deposited in banks and that money is turn used as credit for the public (e.g. car leases, home mortgages, and credit card debt). As Wolff asks, why should workers be paid more, when they can borrow the money and pay it back with interest?

Statistics Canada recently reported that the rich are getting richer. Between 1980 and 2005, the top earners have raised their incomes by 16% while the bottom fifth of the population have dropped by 20%. In contrast to the postwar era, the middle class’ purchasing power has stagnated. Some public opinion polling seems to indicate that, in 2004, half of people felt they were worse off than they were a year ago. And while public opinion typically swings between feeling worse off or the same, people don’t seem to feel as though they’re better off .

Contrast this to the British PM’s quote in the prosperous 1950s: “You’ve never had it so good!” Things have changed, and middle-income workers now buy more with even less, as our manufacturing base moves to low wage facilities. As for many low-wage workers, Jonah Schein of The Stop Community Food Centre relates: “Years of economic growth did little to raise the incomes or living standards of low-wage workers in Ontario as throngs of ‘the working poor’ came to depend on food banks each month. There is a real risk that this recession will pit workers against each other to drive down wages and work conditions for all Ontarians.”

Bargaining in the Present

The recent economic reversal is not simply a matter of perspective. The Ontario government, who ultimately pays teacher’s salaries, has seen a massive reversal from surplus to deficit. There are generally two strategies available to governments in this position. On one hand, you can try to expand production and consumption by spending directly into the economy (e.g. build roads, hire Education Assistants, increase welfare payments, etc.) Under the right conditions, this can expand your tax base with a short-term deficit. On the other, a government can attempt to boost spending by cutting taxes and freezing wages. The latter strategy is one that is most of our leaders favour, although they can’t abandon the first without deepening this crisis. Each of these has different costs and benefits, and the decision a government embraces often depends upon whether its voters are rich, middle, or working-class.

Fortunately for teachers, negotiations take place in cycles, with each cycle having a particular pattern. According to Greg Albo, a professor or Political Economy at York, the last public service bargaining cycle has been characterized by contracts of three or four years, with 2 -3 % raises each year. Our negotiations came at the end of this cycle, and our agreement was similar to others signed recently. Albo suspects that things will be different after the province’s budget in the near future: “With private sector making concessions and inflation going to zero, the pattern of bargaining will be very different in the next cycle.”

Public Opinion and Bargaining

Canada does not have a deep anti-union ethos that characterizes the U.S., but there has always been some resentment towards the public sector. To the private sector, civil servants like myself are shielded from economic shocks because we exist for the ‘public good’ more than for the needs of production. Thus, we are less subject to concessions or layoffs. To the public we serve, our strikes or service disruptions have an immediate and very direct impact. And unlike professional unions (like doctors and professors) that use their qualifications to make gains, many public sector professionals (like teachers) actually withdraw their services as a (very legitimate) bargaining chip. So people are wary of our unions, but Albo admits that the public isn’t uniformly hostile to unions. “I think that neo-liberals are genuinely surprised that the public doesn’t share their anti-union sentiment.”

Unions do earn public support in difficult times if they are seen to be militant and just. Doug Hart, who studies public attitudes towards education at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, which is more than a meeting space for left-wing functions), uses the Harris years as an example. “The Harris government was seen to be a bully, and people trusted the teachers more than the government to say what the education system needed.” In 1998 faith in education was at 44%, but hit 60% in 2007. What is interesting is that the public’s opinion of teachers went from 62% to 68% in that same time frame, and much of the public saw “the system as crippling the efforts of teachers” during the unrest of the Harris years. In fact, Hart attributes some of this success to groups like People for Education, whose ability to collect and publish actual data about educational services from across the province kept the
public informed about what was actually happening with service delivery in schools.

It is here that Hart’s insight is especially valuable. He identifies that the tax structure caused the funding shortfall within the entire education system, from day care to university tuition, from closing schools to IBI therapy for children with autism. But Harris went after the public school teachers and the fight was intensely focused in one area, making the crisis very visible. It cost the Harris government a good deal of hassle and votes to fight with teachers. People were angry at the unrest, and many understood that it wasn’t about teachers being greedy or lazy. The government savings – caused in part by tax cuts – may not have been worth the fight, and the public eventually sided with the teachers, at least in the ballot box.

That was then. Now there are demands from all over the educational map, not just from public school teachers. “This is not the situation now where the schools are seen as only one, and by no means the most desparate institutions seeking help,” Hart argues. “In the current crisis underfunding of schools is probably much less visible than earlier.” This works against teachers, as they are no longer positioned as victims of conservative thuggery. Harris undermined his aggressively anti-teacher messaging by being so aggressive. According to Hart, however: “To the extent that teachers are less prominently seen in the context of threatened schools, labour disputes will focus public attention on their identity as a relatively highly paid group of public sector professionals charged with what many will regard as an ‘essential service’ even if not legally so.”

Justice and Bargaining

Albo agrees, saying that the Canadian public is generally perceptive enough to see through the typical media messaging and take sides based on some sense of justice. Again, when unions’ demands are seen as just, and when they connect their demands to problems with the system’s underfunding (e.g. overworked nurses in understaffed ERs, teachers with 35 kids in a class), the public may side more with the workers. According to Albo: “In conditions where unions are militant and in pursuit of narrow interests, if they don’t carry the sense of justice with them, they don’t go very far. If they’re only protecting interests in a narrow sense, it can have a negative connotation.”

But public sympathy is also limited by interest and understanding. Hart’s data indicates that less than half the public knows that teachers negotiate with a school board. Moreover, there is record high support for increased taxation and funding of public schools (60% and 73%, respectively in 2007) although it is questionable whether the public realizes that the bulk of this goes towards teacher salaries.

Hart makes two other observations that relate to the public relations component of our bargaining strategy. The first is that parents have far more faith in their children’s own school than in the school system in general. Albo too notes that the public can identify more easily with the actual public servant who teaches their kid or collects their trash, as opposed to the abstraction of their union. The obvious implication is that personal relationships can be important for public support. But what is also very interesting is that, according to Hart, public attitudes towards schools and education are often set by people’s own school experience as kids. Again, the positive impact that teachers have on students can play an important role in support for education a generation later. (Parent opinion is determined mostly by their relationship to their child’s school, and to a lesser extent by their own experiences as a student).

Does Public Opinion Matter?

Although our collective agreement was signed with minimal labour disruption, to what degree would public opinion have mattered if things had not been so smooth? Again, it all depends on the optics. During the Harris years, people knew that teachers were trying to protect public education. Now, given the public’s lack of awareness of bargaining issues, the relatively positive attitude towards schools, and the easy headline of “12% raise”, we may have come off as self-interested.

In an immediate sense, this had no real implications for our bargaining goals. As the saying goes, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. People will be annoyed by pink listings, work to rules, and potential service withdrawals but, as Greg Albo notes, public sector strikes are becoming shorter and less intense. Secondly, as Doug Hart noted above, support for schools is not really determined by labour peace unless it is an extreme period like the late nineties. Specific reprisals at election time are
unlikely, unless the unrest is significant (as in the 1948 U.S. election, in which labour relations was the central, partisan issue).

Albo also has doubts about the possibility of election reprisals, saying that anti-union legislation may come in a general, rather than targeted, form. Harris likely went after schools for a variety of reasons, beyond a severe dislike of teacher unions. Likely, the long term goal of privatizing the education system was a bigger strategic motive.

Did teachers play into the hands of privatizers by demanding a raise, the same raise that most public servants received during the last bargaining cycle? Likely not. Given the current support for education, the hostility towards public funding of private schools, and the Liberal commitment to keep the public’s faith in schools, the spectre of privatization is not as dire as it may once have been. Those who would consider private schools for their kids due to a strike are probably predisposed to that option anyway. Recent headlines seem to indicate that with jobs being lost, private school parents are turning public.

Building Support Between Bargaining

The most recent round of teacher bargaining was concluded without blood being spilt (except within the teacher union). But given the constant restraint and austerity of the neo-liberal era (i.e. from the 1980s onward), bargaining will not get any easier. In fact, the neo-liberal tax structure almost guarantees that labour peace will be more of an occasional luxury than a permanent reality.

In this context, it would be worth examining the role of a union in between bargaining periods. Given that the working poor is getting poorer and the middle-income workers’ are stagnating, perhaps our target should be the economic system that is perpetuating the constant budgetary crises. “The political project is much wider than the collective bargaining project,” Albo notes. “I can’t see anything happening in the public sector or the school system without addressing the tax levels. You can’t bring in full day early learning on the basis of the existing revenue, which is based on neo-liberal tax structures.”

An easy starting point is the minimum wage. Currently, it is $8.75 and increasing gradually over the next two years. A recent study, A Living Wage for Toronto, estimates that two parents working full-time with two young children would need to earn $16.60 each to live adequately in the GTA. The last thing politicians want to do in the current climate is to hike the minimum wage, despite demands by poverty activists to raise it to $11/hour by 2011. But, as Albo notes, one of the most effective responses to a recessionary demand shock is to give money to people who will spend it. According to David Olive, a business columnist with the Toronto Star: “By the simple device of raising the minimum wage, you can instantly boost the income of the working poor by a stunning 20% or 30% in one day, even while you’re busy slaying the deficit dragon. That’s how Clinton raised incomes for 17 million working-poor Americans, with repeated minimum-wage hikes.”

Given the stupendous amount of money I pay in union dues each year, I assume that they would have a healthy war chest with which to support the 25-in-5 Network for poverty reduction. Grassroots campaigning, hiring organizers, lobbying, public outreach, and other tactics would make a difference in forcing the Liberals to raise the minimum wage.

Not only would this make a real difference in the lives of our students and communities, it would push back against the system that perpetuates economic inequality. Albo notes that this campaign has helped the union movement in general: “The minimum wage campaign has been a key part of revitalizing
unions. It provides a way to reach out to new service sector workplaces and creates a more positive impression about unions especially in cities like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.”

A second place for teachers to start is by supporting our colleagues in daycare, many of whom are women of colour. At an average of $23, 000 a year (which usually means 12 months, not 10), our support for our day care sisters is a matter of equity and ethics. Given the advent of full day early learning, we’re going to have to grapple with this sooner rather than later.

Hopefully our bargaining will wind down quietly so we can move on to these important projects.

David Banerjee is an elementary teacher in the Toronto District School Board


Professor Wolff’s presentation can be found at

The Living Wage Study on poverty in Toronto can be found at

Public opinion data on education can be found at

The StatsCan info can be found at

Public attitudes towards their well-being can be found at

The article on ECE pay can be found at


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