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Michael Laxer's blog

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Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario.

A plea to Ontario's citizens: Support your teachers and their union

| September 20, 2012

As many of you are no doubt aware, there is a struggle occurring in Ontario between the Liberal McGuinty provincial government and Ontario's teachers and their unions.

Not content to allow negotiations to take their course, McGuinty and his Education Minister, Laurel Broten, manufactured a "crisis" by implying, entirely falsely, that the start of the student school year was in jeopardy due to alleged union "intransigence" around issues like wage freezes, sick days, etc. They then implemented, with the support of the Tories, Bill 115, a new low in Ontario collective bargaining history that renders teacher strikes temporarily illegal and that imposes the settlement that the McGuinty government wanted all along.

This bill is being challenged in the courts by, among others, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. At a press conference they held Sukanya Pillay said "We are concerned that this bill violates the right to meaningful collective bargaining. Why is it necessary, for instance, to remove the right to strike before any job action has occurred or even been contemplated? Collective bargaining enhances the dignity of workers and is a constitutional right, in part, for this reason. This isn’t only about the pocketbook, it is also about participating in the governance of the workplace.”

The government, obviously, has pushed its erstwhile allies into a corner.

The fact is that the teachers, their unions, and their basic collective bargaining rights are under full frontal assault. This is part of a broader trend in Canada to override the rights of citizens who are members of unions by claiming that the exercise of these rights, namely the power that they have to withdraw their labour and services, is somehow an infringement on the "rights" or "needs" of others. In this case the right to strike has been taken away prior to the act itself, rendering the right null and void and, in addition, preventing the teachers from being able to collectively exercise their power and rights as workers in the face of the government.

Usually the attack on unions is framed in a disingenuous and folksy way. And usually this is done by the right. Hence the absurd naming of Bill 115 as "Putting Students First," an obvious attempt to court the pseudo-populist nonsense that by striking or demanding their fair share and their union rights, somehow teachers are being greedy or are "hurting students."

This right-wing rhetoric is hauled out in every strike, public or private sector. The lies of the government and capitalist forces are always that the actions of unionized workers are harming students, the public, the economy, people who "really want jobs," those who depend on their services, etc. The "victim" of the union may change, depending on the situation, but the false narrative is always the same.

Unions, don't you know, should not make life hard for anyone. And striking or "work-to-rule" supposedly does that.

The teachers have responded to McGuinty by a "work-to-rule" campaign where they are no longer doing the unpaid after school work that so many parents take as somehow "a part of the job." They are using the last tool available to them, a tool as old as unionism itself, given that their usual bargaining rights have been negated. They are doing this to show the public just how valuable their work actually is and to push the public to realize that they take much of what teachers do in helping to raise our children for granted.

So imagine the shock, here on the pages of rabble, when we hear Gerry Caplan telling us that, if the teachers continue with their work-to-rule campaign "Surely teachers, not the government, will take the brunt of the criticism. Take even me, a teacher and union booster. I have a granddaughter in public school. I'm angry at Dalton McGuinty, but if she's punished for his sins, I'm sorry but I know who I'll blame."

After saying that they should simply be happy about Catherine Fife's victory and wait for the next election (assuming, as I guess he does, that the NDP would advocate for teachers despite the fact that Fife singularly failed to do so when asked at a debate ) to see their objectives realized, he then goes on to say "I appeal to teachers not to withhold any of their services from their students. I appeal to the leaders of the teacher unions to disavow their directives to their members. I urge them to assure the public they will never use students as pawns in their legitimate struggles with the government."

An interesting choice of words and strikingly reminiscent of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel's statement, in his attempt to break Chicago's teacher's union that "students are being used as pawns.” This same logic has been used for 30 years by liberals and rightists to help to destroy unions and their popular support. They have been very successful in making people think that their own immediate self-interest or selfishness is more important than broader struggles against austerity and injustice and that their own personal interests and those of unions are divergent.

What, one must ask Caplan, would have happened had the teachers in Ontario been allowed to use their right to collective action and had they gone on strike? A real full-out strike which is the instrument of basic union power. Would this not have been, according to Caplan's logic, using the "students as pawns"? There would have been no classes or school at all. Would a legal and constitutional exercise of their fundamental rights as workers to strike have made him blame them as he had a granddaughter in the "system"? 

I have three children in the system and I am on the side of the teachers. I am not on the side of the teachers as long as it does not inconvenience me and my children for a few weeks, I am on their side totally and I support their rights completely. And I know who I blame; I blame the McGuinty government. And I equally blame all those who embrace the idiocy of populist anti-union rhetoric.

I also know that using the rhetoric of the right and the capitalist class to continue to disregard the basic rights of the unions and workers that so many fought and died for is wrong. There is no doubt as to whose side we should be on here. The students know who is in the right, and showed this with their walkouts, and so should we. This is an opportunity for us to teach our children and grandchildren about why we support unions, and what they mean to our society and the history of the fight against injustice and poverty as well as the fight for worker's rights. Gerry, if your granddaughter is missing an after-school class, maybe you should tell her why, and why she should be on the side of those who will educate her for the rest of her formative years and why she should be on the side of union workers as a whole.

This is a teachable moment.

In a strike the students are not "pawns," they are the point. The government and Globe and Mail columnists do not teach children, the teachers do. They are the front-line workers and they deserve the full, absolute and complete solidarity of everyone on the left.

Their tactics are not what should be in question, the tactics of the government are.

I urge all citizens and parents to remember that if you think teachers are our "heroes," as Caplan says, we do so by defending their constitutional rights, their right to strike no matter who it "inconveniences," their right to have unions and to exercise collective action and their right to oppose the appalling legislation of McGuinty and his Tory allies not only, supposedly,  at the ballot box one day, but right now in the streets and on the picket lines.



Rick Salutin's characterization of the our teachers' (unions) tactics as "business (as usual) unionism":

Teachers and tactics. It seems to me that Ontario teachers' tactics like largely withdrawing from extracurricular programs or staying away from Meet the Teacher nights are counterproductive, but they don't lack a context. They're the fruit of about 125 years of "business unionism," in which many unions -- including public sector ones -- have viewed themselves on the model of businesses that exist for the good of their owners or shareholders and use any means they can to maximize their profits versus the competition.

But there's another model. It sees unions as social organizations of people with common interests, all embedded in a larger society. On that model, a union's strength lies not in its intrinsic power but in its ability to recruit support from beyond itself. The basis of strategy isn't wielding your "clout"; it's building alliances. For teachers the best way to do that isn't by withdrawing from contacts with kids and parents but using those contacts to explain their view of the conflict, as well as how everyone's interests dovetail -- morally and practically.

Who would disagree, eh?!

I wouldn't disagree with you, Kloch, except to clarify that my questions are not about our education system as a whole nor about our teachers, but about our teachers' unions. How good are they compared with the picture that Karen Lewis paints of the Chicago teachers' union?

Presently, Ontario's education system is one of the best in the english speaking world.  So no, we are not in the same league as Chicago.  We are better.

Below is an excerpt from Amy Goodman's interview with Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, discussing the alleged separation between Chicago teachers and their union.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a comment made by Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist who’s helping lead a drive for more charter schools here in Chicago. He is also a close behind-the-scenes adviser to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. On Tuesday, he said, quote, "The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They’re not the same thing. ... The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things—get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That’s what they’re paid to do. They’re not about the students. They’re not about results. They’re not about the taxpayers." Karen Lewis, you’re the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Your response?

KAREN LEWIS: I actually know Bruce Rauner. I met him when I first took this job. And he was actually quite impressed with me and invited me to join a board that he was on. He and I also went to the same undergraduate school. . . .

I mean, the problem is, he has the wrong idea of what this union is. Now, that may be so for other unions, but we purposely tried to change the culture of union so that the union is about education, is about empowering teachers and paraprofessionals and clinicians. And as a result, the union officers took pay cuts, significant pay cuts, so that we can have an organizing department, so that we can have a research department, so that we didn’t do the union the way the old union was done, because those days are over, because then people like Bruce Rauner can separate the union from the teachers. And this is where they’re wrong. They’re absolutely wrong, and they acted that way the entire time, because they didn’t understand what we were really doing, which was organizing our members, not about the whole—yes, we have to negotiate for whatever, but that’s not our main focus.

So our main focus is trying to make education better, because we feel like we can solve some of the problems. The longer school day was a hot, buttery mess until we sat down with them and said, "OK, look, you can’t afford to pay us this entire length of day, because the arbitrator told you that, so here’s a way to figure this out by staffing up so that you can save some money." We actually brought that to the board, because they were clueless. They were absolutely clueless in trying to figure out the problem. We’re teachers. We’re problem solvers. And for—Bruce Rauner has to remember, I’m two years out of the classroom, so, for me, not a bureaucratic union hack. Sorry, that tag just won’t hang on us.

Are our Ontario teachers unions in the same league as the Chicago teachers union?  Do they have "trying to make education better" as their main focus? This question may be irrelevant to Michael Laxer, but it is relevant to me.

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