When we step back and examine what education workers in other parts of the country are experiencing and which policies their provincial and territorial governments are adopting, it helps us better understand the situation in Ontario. It also illuminates the extent to which governments shape policies by following the lead of other jurisdictions.
Education workers across Canada are not experiencing the extreme right-wing assaults that characterized the mid-1990s and early 2000s. However, the economic downturn and declining enrolment, experienced broadly nationwide, are leading most provincial governments to adopt an austerity agenda and hold back from introducing education reforms. Given that education unions have memberships that are predominantly female, austerity in the education sector is clearly a women’s issue.
Negotiations Under Austerity
In Ontario, we’re faced with a government focused on balancing its budget through “net-zero” public sector bargaining and by delaying overdue education reforms such as providing more support for students with special needs and reducing class sizes in Kindergarten and grades 4 to 8. It may be small comfort, but educators in other provinces face similar challenges to negotiating salaries that keep up with the cost of living and to achieving improvements to working and learning conditions.
Outside of Ontario, British Columbia presents the most high-profile example of a teacher union battling its government over an austerity agenda. In 2002, the BC government introduced legislation that imposed a net-zero contract on teachers and other education workers and removed the ability of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) to negotiate class size or class composition. BCTF has been fighting the government’s abrogation of bargaining rights since then, winning two favourable decisions from the BC Supreme Court. Both have been ignored by Christy Clark’s Liberal government. BCTF has taken its case to the federal Supreme Court. In the meantime, after a protracted strike in 2014, BCTF’s latest collective agreement provides a 7.25 percent salary increase over five years, not likely to match inflation.