Monday, September 17, 2012

#14 Keep Calm and Carry On

    Almost all unionized teachers are salaried contract workers, so at the end of each agreement there is always some posturing by management and teachers. If the economy is weak then the game will turn toward threats of job sanctions or all out war in the form of a strike. I've been through a few of these disputes over the years and they always make me think of the old British World War 11 propaganda poster, Keep Calm and Carry On.

    Both bargaining camps will select people from their respective labour groups to form negotiating teams.The union will ask its members for a strike vote before the negotiations begin. Once the strike vote is taken, (it is usually high) the real battle begins.  The 'talks' are usually about salary or salary in the form of work load. If the process is in danger of breaking down, each team will arm themselves with a position which they can spin in the best possible light to teachers and the public.

    Teacher labour disputes rarely get physical, we are too politically astute for that kind of war. It is a battle waged publicly in the media, a game of political jousting. If the negotiations sour, then the news hits the members soon and so does the propaganda.  There will be leaflets handed out, lunch time union meetings, maybe someone from the district office will come by urging us for continued support. We are told not to discuss anything with administration, students, parents, the public, and to just "keep working." 

    If the situation worsens, we will be asked to target the employer or local MPP with a rally. A union representative, will get some air time on the news or a radio show in an effort to get our position out into the public.  Teachers start to get stressed and the lunchtime conversations focus on the "talks."

    So, what happens to a teacher's work day?  Imagine you are doing your job and one day a blanket is thrown over your world - it's the blanket of secrecy. You feel a little uncomfortable, wondering what is going on and someone, usually a union representative will poke their head under the blanket and say, "Everything is OK!", "We have to do it this way!", "Don't talk to anyone inside or outside the blanket!", "Just keep working!" You trust them, so you do as you're told. So, we keep calm and carry on, most of the time in the dark and feeling uncomfortable.

    If the labour dispute is a long one, the union will have a series of meetings in the staff room with the doors closed.  There will be a large meeting for everyone in the board where we will listen to spirited speeches and theatrical testimonials and a question/answer session. There will be windy speeches from 'union guys' from Toronto, maybe a leader from another big union will stand up and express his outrage at our treatment and then his union's undying support. Lots of propaganda in the form of buttons, arm bands, leaflets and maybe a few t-shirts will be provided.  They will tell us DO NOT talk about the troubles to anyone, the parents, the students, especially the media. At the end of the meeting they will tell us "everything is going to be alright if we just stick with them" and "keep working." Everyone claps, picks up the propaganda leaflets on the way out, goes home, gets up the next day and goes to work.

    At some point there will be a staff meeting where a member of the school management team will remind us to refrain from discussing the labour dispute with students or parents. If the media show up we are instructed to direct all questions to administration. It becomes an exercise in suppression of information, and emotions from all corners of the dispute. We are reminded that is it business as usual and to "keep working", but it never is this simple. We go into work each day, stand in front of the public, and do our best to keep the stress under control. You want the problem to just go away so you can get on with your job, but it doesn't.  It's really just beginning.

    Contract negotiations are very complex battles.  Nobody seems to feel that the public will understand the details so both sides water down the message. There might be some short radio ads from both parties or a newspaper ad.  The union will say it's about, it's about "fairness" and "giving the children a good education."  The employer will say it's about "money", "fairness" and "it's about the children." Have you noticed the people furthest from the 'children' are the most concerned about their welfare?  Well, in battle, the children get used a lot.

    In Canada, all media is controlled by a very small group of people who are usually not sympathetic to teachers. They are interested in selling advertising, so they create news 'stories' complete with heroes, (the employer) villains (the union) and victims (the children) The media know that arguments of passion sell soap and beer better than arguments of reason. And so, the abuse of the public servant teacher begins.

    News media have columnists who are really paid contrarians; they will write articles critical of us as a labour group. We will be called lazy, greedy, suggest we should all be fired, abusive toward children's education etc..There will be call-in talk shows where members of the public will say we should all be fired, we are greedy, lazy, uncaring, selfish, hurting the children, and so it carries on for the duration of the dispute. They too like to mention "it's all about the children" - often. Smart teachers don't pay any attention to the media, but I usually watch the the media sideshow.  It is all theatre, the opinions expressed by the media are shallow, willfully disillusioned, not very informative and gutless. So, it no surprise that most of the participating public are as ignorant.

    Kids are usually very good during these disputes.  Very rarely have they said much about the battles to me.  Their main concern seems to be knowledge that there might be a strike and consequently no school. Many kids see the whole thing as school yard scrap. For the most part, nothing is said, we keep teaching and everything is superficially normal. 

    Teachers go into work every day, do their jobs.  We try to put on a straight face for our students, who can be pretty good at reading between the lines, and attend lunch time update meetings about the labour unrest.  Many read email about it, watch the talk shows, read the opinion columns, listen to their neighbours at the doggie park and in the grocery stores.  It becomes a repetitive train of opinion, finger pointing. Most teachers just hunker down and keep working.

    If the negotiations break down and we end up 'walking' (on strike), everything changes. Strikes are expensive for both sides and nobody wants one. Strike pay is a fraction of your salary, bank payments are still due, as are living expenses.The average strike is about six weeks and after the first few days, the novelty has worn off. The odd teacher will refuse to strike, but the vast majority walk. We are told to meet at the school where strike captains take attendance, give us signs and tell us to pace up and down the sidewalk for a few hours each day. Some cars will honk in support, some roll down their windows and shout obscenities at us.   You just want it all to be over and get back to work, but the union tells us to "keep walking."  There will be group meetings put on by the union to keep us informed with little or no information. The propaganda battle rages on in the media.

    The good side of all of this confrontation is that it ends. One day, the blanket is lifted. There will be another local union meeting to tell us that they got the best deal possible and we will be given a date where a vote is taken. If they won us a raise or maybe improved working conditions, the message will be about how 'difficult the battle was, but look what we did for you.' If they lose the story will be, 'if wasn't for us, they would have beaten you up a little more.' The employer will announce in the media that the dispute is over and they got a great deal for taxpayers.  Then they will tell everyone how much they love teachers and they look forward to working with us in the future. The media will move onto create another story for the news entertainment business.  Parents are relieved because they can get on with their routine. Children come back and are usually happy to see their teachers and friends.

    We try to look dignified when it's all over, relieved, just happy the blanket has been removed and we can keep on working.  If we walked, it will take years to recoup the lost wages. The atmosphere of battle calms down and we carry on working, but you can still hear the echo, 'It's about the children.'