Considering the huge steps the Society has made for all members over the last century, it’s easy to forget that there were ordinary teachers living in terrible circumstances on that road to progress. Long before there was such a thing as Teacher Welfare, the welfare of teachers was the cornerstone of the Federation.
Sub-standard salaries were at the root of most bad situations. When you barely earn enough to pay for necessities there is no saving for a ‘rainy day’, but low pay for teachers caused damage beyond economics. It signaled to trustees, parents and even the students that the teacher, though held to the highest community standards, wasn’t deserving of their respect. And where there is no respect, abuse isn’t far behind.
Early issues of the Bulletin and Manitoba Teacher magazines contain members’ letters to central office describing everything from having no decent place to live, unpaid salaries and unjust dismissals, all the way to assault. Many rural teachers were men and women under twenty, isolated from friends and family, which made them particularly vulnerable. Malicious mistreatment of teachers certainly wasn’t the intent or even the case in most communities, yet school boards were rarely held accountable.
Such circumstances were part of the reason the MTF came into being, and for establishing a full-time, “travelling” General Secretary who could pay a personal visit to the area. Though he gained a reputation for being a tough negotiator, E.K. Marshall may not have had anyone shaking in their boots. Still, the message was clear that now a teacher had someone at their back.
Through the MTF, one could also share information about the state of living arrangements and the school building, problems encountered with trustees and parents and most certainly salary. Before applying for a position, the MTF vigorously encouraged teachers to “Clear with Central Office”, a practice that endured well into the 1970s.
The 1930s are well known for financial hardship and in this regard, the MTF as an organization, as well as individual members contributed to an emergency fund for fellow teachers in dire straits. Pension reform went a long way to providing some measure of security but problems weren’t always strictly about a regular paycheck. With collective bargaining still over a decade away, many issues had to be handled on a case-by-case basis, as detailed in the May 1941 issue of the Manitoba Teacher. Membership at the time was under 5,000 so this roughly translated to nearly one in four needing help.
“One thousand three hundred matters affecting the welfare of Manitoba teachers were dealt with by the M.T.F. this year. These included 44 cases of salary arrears, 16 boarding place problems, 15 cases of threatened dismissal, 35 military and war problems 16 sick leave arrangements, 9 cases of assault or slander and many others behind each of which was a perplexed and worried teacher.”
A common concern for teachers was finding affordable life and health insurance. In 1942, Vic Wyatt, a St. Vital teacher began looking into the problem after the death of a colleague left the man’s family with no financial assistance. He found most companies wouldn’t consider teachers because there were so many employers involved. But he persevered and as head of a new committee found a provider who offered life insurance (with double indemnity for accidental death), hospitalization and surgery benefits. No medical was required, provided that 75 per cent of the MTF members in either a Local or a single school applied for it. Since then, significant progress has brought security and peace of mind for teachers.
As current staff officer Glen Anderson, explains, “We’ve had an optional life plan that people could access since the ‘60s. That was the first real benefit plan other than collective agreements that members could access. The first group plan that was really sponsored by the Society and the Manitoba Association of School Trustees started in 1972. It’s still there. It’s changed several times with different values and different policies and insurers over time. There are other sub-plans, including dental, extended health benefits that had been added. Since 1989 there’s also been a deferred salary leave plan also trusteed by the school boards, trustees and the society.”
Benefit plans are just one example of how the welfare of teachers intersects with Teacher Welfare and how the particular needs of teachers sometimes require a creative solution. Over the next 50 years, MTS would also take up the fight for rights and benefits other ‘public sector’ employees enjoyed. Other times, the point to be made was that teachers were unlike other groups.
The ‘70s were proof of both instances. After years of political and legal wrangling, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld that teachers were eligible for employment insurance over the summer months.. Meanwhile, the Society worked tirelessly to minimize the impact on teachers in the face of the anti-inflation board measures. Personnel Services staff officers also worked with Economic Welfare officers as teachers fought layoffs in the face of declining enrollment.
As is often the case, the two aspects of Teacher Welfare worked in tandem; on one hand helping local associations make gains under their collective agreements, and on the other ensuring that individual teachers are not denied the rights and benefits to which they are entitled.
Shifts in attitudes and an appreciation for the stress of teaching brought about the Educator Assistance Program in 1985 and the addition of two counselors to the MTS staff. The 1990’s began with the first comprehensive study MTS had conducted on workplace abuse of teachers and followed up with workload surveys across the province.
As membership in the Society grew, so did the need for expanded services and the staff to deliver them, from just two additional officers other than the General Secretary and AGS in 1959, to seven officers by 1979. By 2010, Teacher Welfare had grown to over a dozen staff dedicated to collective bargaining and Personnel Services.