Ontario Teachers Return to Class (Nov97 Updates)

Over the past few weeks, Jamie McAlpine and his wife, Ann, had several intense and emotional discussions across the kitchen table about the provincewide teachers' strike that gave 2.1 million Ontario children an unscheduled holiday.

Ontario Teachers Return to Class (Nov97 Updates)

Over the past few weeks, Jamie McAlpine and his wife, Ann, had several intense and emotional discussions across the kitchen table about the provincewide teachers' strike that gave 2.1 million Ontario children an unscheduled holiday. The McAlpines, who live in a refurbished 19th-century farmhouse near the town of Orangeville, 90 km northwest of Toronto, are both teachers. But they held opposing views of the dispute, triggered by Bill 160 - a highly contentious piece of legislation that would give the provincial government greater control of Ontario's $14-billion education system. She went out on strike. He crossed the picket line at Credit Meadows Elementary School in Orangeville and, along with another teacher, provided lessons to as many as 24 students a day. The McAlpines' marriage survived - "There's not going to be a divorce because of Bill 160," she said. But as the protest began to collapse late last week, the couple worried about lingering fallout from the dispute. "Teachers are going to be disgruntled and unhappy," said Ann McAlpine. "I really hope we can keep politics out of the classroom."

That may be easier said than done. Many of the province's 126,000 teachers vowed to continue their fight against Bill 160 and Premier Mike Harris's Progressive Conservative government. But they were divided over how to maintain pressure on the Tories - and how to end their protest. Last Thursday, leaders of three of Ontario's five teachers' unions - the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations, the Public School Teachers' Federation and the Franco-Ontarian teachers' association - announced that their members would return to class on Monday. And on Saturday, one of the two high-school teachers' unions, the English Catholic Teachers' Federation, also decided to end its strike. (The fifth union, the Secondary School Teachers' Federation was scheduled to meet Sunday.) But despite the apparent consensus among union leaders, individual teachers were far from unanimous. "There's a real split," Eileen Lennon, president of the Ontario Teachers' Federation, told Maclean's. "Some feel we've made our point. Others are much more militant and want to stay out as long as it takes."

That much was evident during a Friday meeting at Toronto's Hummingbird Centre, where about 3,000 Toronto elementary-school teachers attended an information session. Although it had been called some time before, the meeting quickly became a forum for teachers to denounce the union leadership's decision to return to work. While some welcomed that announcement, many others accused their leaders of abandoning the cause, shouting: "We won't back down, we won't back down." Union leaders were eventually booed off the stage. "I've never seen anything like it," said Grade 8 teacher Mario Godlewski. "I thought Canadians were mild-mannered, calm and submissive, but this was the exact opposite. The leaders were made to walk the plank."

But the word that some schools could reopen came as welcome news for parents who had been forced to scramble to find babysitters or day care for their children. And Education Minister Dave Johnson, who inherited the portfolio from John Snobelen on Oct. 10, just as the dispute over Bill 160 was escalating, appeared equally relieved. "I'm the happiest guy in the province," he declared. The teachers, Johnson added, would have to accept that Bill 160 would become law. "I do hope that they all get back," he said. "I do hope that they understand that they have had their say. Now, it's time to get on."

Bill 160, otherwise known as the Education Quality Improvement Act, will probably receive third and final reading during the legislative session that begins on Nov. 17, with only a handful of amendments announced last week in a futile bid to appease the teachers. The massive 226-page bill would, among other things, set class sizes at the current provincial averages - 25 for elementary schools and 22 at the secondary level. It would cut preparation time for secondary-school teachers by about one-third to 50 minutes a day. And it would lengthen the school year by five days for primary students and 10 for high-school students by reducing the number of teachers' professional development days, as well as the time set aside for exams. The government has argued throughout the dispute that such reforms are necessary to improve the quality of education in the province.

Critics charged that the bill was nothing more than a power grab aimed at stripping local school boards of their authority and giving the provincial government almost exclusive control over schooling in Ontario. They also argued that the government was using education reform as a cloak to conceal its true agenda - cutting expenditures and laying off up to 10,000 teachers. Those charges gained credence when opposition politicians obtained a leaked document shortly before the strike, indicating that deputy education minister Veronica Lacey has a performance contract that would reward her for cutting $667 million from the education budget in the fiscal year beginning next April 1. Up to that point, Harris and other senior members of the government had refused to confirm that they intended to make cuts. After that, they had little choice but to acknowledge that decreasing the education budget was in fact part of the government's game plan.

Throughout the strike, which included boisterous public demonstrations, confrontations on the picket lines and displays of approval and disapproval from parents, the government and the unions waged costly advertising campaigns to win public support. And by the end of last week, opinions polls indicated that the teachers had prevailed. Toronto-based Environics Research Group, which polled the province almost daily on behalf of the teachers' unions, found that 63 per cent of Ontario residents felt the government should withdraw all or parts of Bill 160. Only 28 per cent said the government should hold firm. Another polling company, Angus Reid Group, found that within Metro Toronto 55 per cent had supported the government at the start of the strike; by the end, 54 per cent were behind the teachers. "In our polling, the spending cut issue really struck a chord," said John Wright, a senior vice-president with Angus Reid. "It was not just about cuts, but about trust. It seems to be the issue that changed the landscape."

The teachers also carried the day when the combatants took their dispute to a court of law. Three days into the strike, the government announced that it would seek an injunction forcing the teachers back to work. Lawyers for both sides spent two days, including a Saturday, arguing their cases before Justice James MacPherson of the Ontario Court's general division. In his decision, released last Monday morning, MacPherson dismissed the government's main argument that the strike had caused "irreparable harm." He added that Bill 160's provisions are so broad and sweeping that they may be open to a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And he implicitly endorsed the teachers' position that they were engaged in a lawful protest, not an illegal strike, as the government described it. "The record demonstrates that they made the decision in a careful, concerned and reluctant fashion," he wrote. "Teachers do not believe that they are disregarding the law."

Union leaders and their members were bolstered by the ruling, declaring that they had won a "moral victory." But many parents wanted the schools reopened, and looked to the Ontario Labor Relations Board for a solution. Esther Foorer, the board's manager of operations, said that by late last week the office switchboards were jammed for an entire day with calls from parents who wanted to appear before the board to argue that the teachers should be ordered back to work. She also issued hundreds of applications for hearings. As well, the Mississauga-based Dufferin-Peel Roman Catholic School Board had a hearing scheduled for Nov. 10, if necessary, to seek an order that would force its teachers to return to work. Moreover, there were growing signs that many teachers had tired of the protest. The ministry of education reported that by the ninth day of the walkout, almost 2,500 teachers had crossed the line, up from 987 on the first day of the strike.

On the picket lines in Orangeville, morale was sagging as the protest wore on. One morning last week, Grade 4 teacher Doris Vance and about 20 colleagues stood on the sidewalk outside Credit Meadows Elementary. Many were cold and shivering, despite their parkas and winter boots. Vance worked on a knitting project to pass the time. "I was ready to go back before it all started," she said. "Every teacher wants to be in the classroom with the kids." Fellow teacher Valerie Till agreed. "Let's get back to school," she said. "We've made phenomenal gains with the public in the past two weeks, but walking a picket line isn't gaining anything."

Public support was evident from the number of motorists who honked as they drove past, and the people who dropped by with coffee and doughnuts. But many local residents did not side with the teachers. One of them, retired electrician Ron Lehman, pulled up in a bright red pickup, rolled down the window and shouted at the crowd of pickets: "I think the government is out to lunch, but so are you guys - the big losers are the kids." Grade 7 teacher Rix Lubenkov walked over and asked Lehman, politely, if he had read Bill 160. Lubenkov explained that the legislation, which is supposed to be about improving education, makes no reference to curriculum, learning or testing. But, he told Lehman, taxes and power are each mentioned 124 times while the word fees appears 84 times. "Changes can be made behind closed doors, by the ministers," Lubenkov says, "without consulting anyone." Lehman was clearly surprised. "That's just not right," he said, and drove off.

As they prepared to return to the classroom, some staff members at Credit Meadows admitted that they would have a hard time putting the strike behind them - especially since two of their colleagues had crossed the picket line. "People say our fight is with the government, not with our colleagues," said vice-principal David Kirk. "But it's frustrating. We were very collegial before all this started. They could have gone to the board offices. They didn't have to cross the picket line every single day." Grade 8 teacher Lynda McDougall agreed. "I wanted them out," she said. "We did our damnedest to educate them. We'll work together - but the strike has changed everything."

Inside the school, with lunch hour over, Jamie McAlpine, who normally teaches Grade 5, was ready to start the afternoon lessons. "Ladies and gentlemen, we need you listening up," he shouted at the 24 children playing noisily in the library. Having got the attention of the students, who ranged from grades 1 to 8, he and his colleague, Grade 7 teacher Ann Fenton, handed out multiplication drills for the older children, and addition drills for the younger students. Through the floor-to-ceiling window behind them, their fellow teachers could be seen picketing out on the sidewalk.

McAlpine and Fenton are light-years away from their colleagues on the issue of Bill 160 and the strike. "I think we need to centralize control over education because it has been too fragmented," said McAlpine. "If Orangeville has one curriculum and another board has its own curriculum, how do we have provincewide tests? Centralization will help when there's so much mobility in society. It will help a kid from Orangeville who moves to Oakville, or Windsor or North Bay." Fenton refused to join the protest because she wasn't given an opportunity to vote on it. "The union took away our democratic rights," she noted. "They said, 'Everybody is going on strike.' We felt pressured, yet nobody wanted to hear our side. They lost me right there."

Both admitted they were generally treated cordially by their picketing colleagues throughout the strike. On one occasion, however, they received an early morning phone call warning them that teachers from other schools would try to prevent them from entering Credit Meadows. And Fenton said her stand led to an unpleasant confrontation with her next-door neighbor, who had provided day care for her two children but who supported the strike. "We lost our babysitting over this," she said. "We came to odds over the strike, but they wouldn't even discuss it."

For McAlpine, the impact of the protest hit even closer to home. He did not have to cross his wife's picket line because she teaches Grade 7 at a different school. But, he acknowledged, "for two weeks now, I haven't felt calm. My wife and I have had some really down-to-earth chats. We've talked about it with the kids. You end up second-guessing yourself. I don't know if I'm right, but I believe I am." Ann McAlpine, meanwhile, said the strike has been a trying experience, but one that strengthened her relationship with her husband: "I respect Jamie's law-abiding way, but I felt, whether it was legal or illegal, I had to take a stand. If we don't, we're just going to get bulldozed by this government."

A Near Impossible Mission

In Ontario political circles, they call Dave Johnson "Mr. Fixit" - the tall, gangly relief pitcher Premier Mike Harris sends in when he particularly needs a win. Until his latest assignment - the education portfolio on the eve of the largest teachers' strike in North American history - Johnson always delivered. In 2 ½ years in government, the 51-year-old Johnson has chaired the management board, served as house leader and acting health minister - and resolved a series of firefights. Among his successes: overseeing deep spending cuts to the civil service after a bitter five-week strike, and heading off a potential doctors' walkout.

But nothing in politics is forever, especially a winning streak. Despite the teachers' expected return to work, the fight over Bill 160 continues. One casualty is Johnson's can-do image, because of the widespread impression that Harris has given him little negotiating room with the teachers. In fact, Tory sources and others say that while Johnson is a staunch supporter of the party's Common Sense Revolution platform, the hardline strategy against the teachers was decided by Harris and advisers Leslie Noble, Alastair Campbell and Tom Long. The present situation "puts Johnson in a position where clearly he's not culpable," says political consultant Graham Murray, editor of the newsletter Inside Queen's Park. "But it's embarrassing for a senior minister to be sidelined or nudged out of the way."

Another problem is an unusual decision taken by Harris, whose government is committed to balancing the province's books. In other governments that made deep cuts, such as the federal Liberals and Alberta's Conservatives, the finance minister took personal responsibility. That allowed other ministers who were required to implement cuts to counter criticism by saying their hands were tied. But the Tories have not given Johnson that option, leaving him in a near-impossible situation: he has been left personally accountable for cuts to education while having to plead with teachers to bend on other issues.

Much of the standoff revolves around Harris's determination to chop about $670 billion from the education system's $14-billion budget. The premier, in a recent interview with Maclean's, said the decision to do so came from asking the rhetorical question: "Is it reasonable that about four cents out of every education dollar is wasted?" As proposed, the reduction virtually ensures layoffs of teachers - and the continuing ire of their unions.

And while cutting money is a priority for the Tories, they have other goals for the school system - which they insist are equally important. One is to shift many powers from local school boards to the education ministry (provincial officials say they often lose their best employees to local boards, where they have more say over curricula and often make more money than all but the highest-ranked provincial mandarins). The Tories say the unions like the decentralized system largely because they can "cherry pick" school boards during contract negotiations: the unions put all their resources into the local talks to gain major contract concessions, then use the settlement as a benchmark for other boards. Another issue is the Tories' long-term plans for sweeping structural change to the education system - including eventually cutting one full year out of secondary school education.

But such initiatives require co-operation from the teachers. And now, concedes one Harris adviser, "You have a minister [Johnson] perceived as only an emissary, and a poisonous climate between two sides who must co-operate on any long-term reform." Before the strike, polls suggested that the teachers would lose in public opinion if they walked out. But since then, they have been gaining support. None of that makes life easier for Johnson, as opponents seize on what they see as the discomfiture of one of Harris's most effective performers. "Dave Johnson is the perfect guy for this job," says NDP Leader Howard Hampton. "He has a nice smile, a pleasing manner - and he'll never do anything that has not specifically been agreed upon in advance by the premier." For Mr. Fixit to finish his job, he must convince opponents that his leader has given him the tools.

No Second Thoughts

As far as Eileen Lennon is concerned, hell is a place where everyone has a cell phone and the ringing never stops. Over the past two weeks, the president of the Ontario Teachers' Federation has dashed from picket lines to meetings and news conferences, all the while dogged by insistent calls. Sitting back in her modest office in one of Toronto's more decrepit office buildings, it is clear that her observation is meant more as comic relief than serious complaint. Lennon, who has led almost all of the province's 126,000 teachers in their strike against the provincial government's education bill, has a raft of more serious problems to deal with. The walkout, which the federation calls a political protest, has disrupted the lives of millions, from those in Premier Mike Harris's suite at Queen's Park to parents in remote communities scrambling to find alternative care for their children. But Lennon says she has no regrets. "I have spent more than a little time thinking about the responsibility," she says, "but I don't have any second thoughts. This has woken people up to the value of a good public education system - even those who voted for the Tories."

Lennon's commitment to that system goes back a long way. Her mother and four aunts were teachers, and Lennon, 48, was raised on tales of poor working conditions and meagre salaries in the days before most teachers were union members. "They put up with it because they needed the job - they were not well off," she recalls, adding that most of them worked full time while raising "bunches of kids." The stories left her with a "healthy skepticism of authority," and almost as soon as she became a teacher in 1972 she became active in the union. In 1988, she was elected head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, a post she held for two years. As tradition dictates, she did not run again and instead returned to the classroom. Then, in 1993, she began working in her local union office full time, and when it was her association's turn to fill the federation president's post - the position rotates annually among the umbrella organization's five member unions - Lennon was chosen.

That was last August - just in time for her to take on the government over Bill 160. Almost overnight, Lennon's life was thrown into fast forward and by mid-October she had become a widely recognized personality. "It's a very strange feeling for somebody who has never been anything other than a private citizen, and never wanted to be anything else," says Lennon, who lives with her twin sister in Mississauga, just west of Toronto. Her life has been virtually on hold - she has been home only two nights in the past three weeks. "My friends have given up having anything other than a telephone conversation with me," she says. On the other hand, she adds, "you certainly know you're alive."

She has also learned things she never wanted to know. Lennon has been disillusioned by the government's refusal to negotiate any major changes to the bill, and angered by what she views as retaliation: in an unexpected manoeuvre a few days after the walkout began, the government amended the bill to remove vice-principals and principals from the union. That change was made to punish the union, Lennon says, and it will seriously erode the collegiality of school staff. But as she mulls over the likely wins and losses for teachers, students and their parents, Lennon does seem heartened by one thing. "This has been a huge morale boost for teachers," she says. "They have felt under siege for some time - undervalued and unappreciated. This has given them recognition for their role in society. I feel very good about that."

Maclean's November 17, 1997