A Commentary by Doug Draper
(The following commentary was written in the wake of news earlier this month that the province’s Liberal government is asking elementary and secondary school teachers to accept a two-year freeze in wages and a cut in some of their benefits, including the number of banked sick days they can cash in on upon retirement, to help beat a monster $16 billion deficit down.)
In a well-worn book on my shelves called ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’, there is a recommendation for teachers I believe makes as much sense now as it did when the book was first published 43 years ago.
The recommendation made by the book’s authors Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, who collectively had many years of experience teaching in elementary and high schools, and in Postman’s case, teaching teachers at New York University, goes like this; ‘Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some field other than education.”
The authors of the book went on to explain why taking a job doing almost anything else from driving a cab to stocking shelves in a retail store might do teachers (who, after all, have spent a good deal of their lives in a school, moving from one side of the desk as students to the other side as teachers) some good every once in a while. “Such an experience,” they wrote, can be taken as evidence, albiet shaky, that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point.”
That recommendation crossed my mind a number of times over the years that my daughter was going to grade school, especially when teachers and principals would organize school trips or assign after-school projects that seemed oblivious to the time and cost burden they often placed on not just a few single parents of kids my daughter knew – parents who were in some cases single and were juggling minimum-wage jobs day and night, just to make sure they could feed their kids properly and put some decent shoes on their feet.
It’s been a few years now since my daughter graduated from high school, but that recommendation came back to mind again last week while I was listening to Sam Hammond, the president of Ontario’s elementary school teachers’ union, being interviewed on CBC radio about an announcement the province’s education minister, Laurel Broten, made earlier that day for cross-the-board wage freezes for elementary and secondary school teachers.
The announcement, coming from a Liberal government that has, up to now, been pretty generous to province’s teachers when it comes to wages and benefits, calls on teachers to accept a two-year wage freeze, along with “a freeze on the salary and qualification grid that teachers move through each year.” The minister noted that on average, and under the latest collective agreement the province has with teachers, “a teacher’s compensation went up as much as 8.5 per cent each and every year. … Increases of this kind,” Broten went on to stressed, “are simply not consistent with our current economic reality.”
That economic reality, as red marked in a report release by former TD Bank economist Donald Drummond last month on the state of Ontario’s finances, adds up to a crippling $16 billion deficit that could double within the next six years if, as Drummond insists, deep and difficult cuts are not made to spending in this province.
The deficit hole the province now finds itself in did not occur over night. It’s the product of years of tax cuts that have reduced by billions of dollars the revenue the province has taken in to cover spending increases that have included wage and benefit hikes to teachers and other public sector groups that have been have been well above what many workers in the private sector have been getting these days.
Indeed, the kind of yearly increases Broten referred to for teachers have continued to occur while the province has been reeling from the worst recession it and the rest of North America have experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s – a recession that saw quite a few people (and probably some parents of kids these teachers’ classes) either losing their jobs or having their hours of work or their wages and benefits cut.
Yet during the CBC interview last week with ‘Radio Noon’ program host Rita Celi, the teachers union president, Hammond, had the audacity to compare the wage and benefit freezes the province is asking teachers to accept to what happened to about 450 Caterpillar plant workers in London, Ontario more than a month ago where they were told to accept an outrageous 50 per cent wage cut or see the plant closed down, which it very quickly was at the cost of their jobs.
Compared to that situation, we are talking about teachers who, at the Niagara District School Board for example, enjoy wages ranging between about $45,000 and $95,000 a year.
All the province is finally doing is asking teachers to do is be realistic and show a willingness to share in the kind of restraint many of the rest of us have had to accept during these difficult economic times. Surely that’s not asking much.
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