Editorial: Labour issues are never about students

The current labour standoff between the Ontario government and non-teaching education unions is a stark reminder that no matter the rhetoric from either side, labour negotiations are never about students. Children as students, are pawns who are exploited by both sides for their own purposes. That sounds harsh, but the truth often is.

Any issue involving education is the trickiest to negotiate – that includes labour agreements – because it is the adults who use our children and their education as bargaining chips. It is the easiest path to make the biggest impact in a negotiation – threaten school closures, families having to make alternative arrangements for child care – to force a solution on the other party. Both sides – government and labour unions – are to blame for using this tactic and it is equally shameful for those involved.

There is no disputing the fact that everyone deserves a fair wage to enable them to do a job which directly or indirectly supports childrens’ education. Governments also must be diligent and accountable for spending. But children should not be hurt by labour issues between the two adult parties, over and over again. This and other potential labour action could have been avoided.

All sides (union and government) knew when education contracts were to expire, August 30, 2022. The two months preceding that expiration was ample time for the adults to sit down and hammer out an agreement, but they did not. Instead of meeting during those months, both sides played to the public for sympathy which amounts to a game of political chicken played by the government and unions. Each side was guilty of posturing to ensure the labour issue would have maximum effect on the other side.

At all times, the government and the unions say they are fighting for students’ education, but really they are not. It is a battle of wages, grievances and budgets. Every time, students are caught in the middle.

This is just the first education union battle being waged this year. After the Ministry of Education and CUPE Ontario School Board Council of Unions collective unit contract is dealt with – either by strike, mutual agreement, or legislated means – there are still four teachers union contracts to settle. The stakes are higher in this year’s negotiation for both sides. The 2019-20 education labour negotiations almost boiled over into a general strike. It was only the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented that from happening.

No one disputes that labour discussions are messy, just like a family divorce – only in a divorce the parties permanently separate. Contract negotiations result in the working relationship continuing. It is often strained. Premier Doug Ford, his education minister Stephen Lecce, and the presidents of the education unions (teaching and non-teaching) should be honest with Ontarians in acknowledging that their contract negotiations are not about the students.

They should all grow up, sit down, do the work, and come to a compromise.

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