Since the new year, MTS has squarely faced a variety of significant issues: vaccination priority for teachers and school staff, remote learning 2.0, Bill 64, The BEST strategy, Bill 45, and the list goes on. Individually, each of these challenges represents a clear and present danger to all that MTS, as a teachers’ union, stands for and is built upon. Taken as a whole, however, these provocations signal a rapidly declining regard for teachers, the profession, and the purpose of public education.
It is against this backdrop that on Thursday, May 20, we celebrated a momentous victory – ratification of the 38th of 38 collective agreements between Manitoba teachers and their employers, a historic and sweeping accomplishment of our 16,600 members, local leaders, and staff.
This is a wide-reaching achievement because in 2017 the government held bargaining hostage with Bill 28 (The Public Services Sustainability Act) by attempting to levy wage freezes and eliminate the right to negotiate. While the Bill was ruled unconstitutional, a sticky residue impacted bargaining with pressure and controls imposed right to the eleventh hour. Despite this interference, all contracts were settled by a collective will to do the right thing.
In the weeks preceding the final settlement, our social media campaign #FairDealForTeachers trended broadly, and teachers across the province became a collective force. The final contract was ratified by members mere hours before Bill 45 received Royal Assent, the consequences of which would have cast a shadow on any bargaining in progress. Once proclaimed, Bill 45 would render teachers in those divisions empty-handed and without a contract until the first provincial bargaining settlement.
Because Bill 45 – The Public Schools Amendment and MTS Amendment Act – changes the way that teachers negotiate, moving to a single-tier model of provincial bargaining, these settlements mark the conclusion of seventy-three years of local bargaining for Manitoba teachers that dates back to 1948.
In 1956, teachers were removed from The Labour Relations Act (LRA) and provisions regarding the rights of teachers were placed in The Public Schools Act (PSA). Among a variety of changes related to teacher rights and contract bargaining within education, arbitration became the final dispute resolution mechanism, and strikes and lockouts were deemed illegal.
Bill 45 is deeply troubling because the new teacher employer – the provincial government – requires arbitrators to consider the ability of the employer – also the provincial government – to pay. Since arbitration is the only lever in teacher bargaining disputes and Bill 45 impedes the neutrality of an arbitration board, teachers lose any authentic means of robust, free, effective, and fair collective bargaining. With a government focussed on austerity, this is not about ability to pay, it is about willingness to pay.
But free and fair collective bargaining is about more than money. Sure, wage increases that keep up with the rate of inflation fuel a healthy economy. But the greedy-teacher narrative grossly distorts and implies a singular motive behind collective bargaining, painting the union as a narrow self-interest group focussed on protecting the economic interests of its members.
Collective bargaining shapes working conditions and seeks fair remuneration for the professional and specialized expertise of teachers; expertise that is reflective of an increasingly complex, vital, and esteemed profession. And those working conditions cannot be uncoupled from students’ learning conditions – the two are symbiotic, interdependent.
For this reason, bargaining extends far beyond the interests of teachers to obvious and powerful connections to the welfare of students and more broadly to the community. When free and fair bargaining is disregarded, it signals a deep shift in government ideology away from the collective towards individualism, away from agency towards power, and away from the public towards privatization. Inequities widen in a society of competition and comparison which rapidly sorts winners and losers and disenfranchises many along the way.
Austerity is the beating heart at the centre of all of it.
Anti-union sentiment is the foundation of this shift and the consequences, documented widely across the globe, include the slow collapse of public services like health and education, resurgence of child poverty, and the ‘epidemic of loneliness’, as one author aptly described it.
As a professional organization, The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is more than a union. While we work to uphold rights, process, and voice, we also work in service to students, to the cause of public education, and to the status of the teaching profession. In doing so, we will not be diminished to a singular economic-seeking function that serves to detract from the social responsibility teachers fervently serve.
Throughout our 102-year history, teachers have consistently sought the power, as a professional and self-governing body, to influence decisions affecting public education. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society Act, assented in 1942, marked a turning point in the affairs of Manitoba teachers. It represented the culmination of years of struggle and achievement for professional status that ensured MTS representation on a long list of boards, in organizations and on committees with wide input and influence. We will fight to continue to have the voices of our members at the table and informing public education.
However, the pursuit of professional status means something much different now than it did in the beginning. The Society recognizes how important it is to uphold the role of teachers, and we must fiercely defend it from insinuations that reduce bargaining to an issue of money. We must be vigilant and responsive to attempts to inject political interference into curriculum and pedagogy, remove education experts from decision making on education issues, and reduce education to the metrics of standardized testing of economic end-goals.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is you and me and us: It exists in communities that span the vast geography of our province. Safeguarding bargaining rights and the status of the profession demand engagement of the collective: We are all the MTS.
This year has been peppered with calls to action that you have answered: #UseYourVoice,#RaiseYourVoice, #FairDealForTeachers, #SlamTheDoorOn64. Teachers have written letters, presented at committee, staked lawn signs, and participated in town halls. Teachers have joined grassroots community groups, honked their horns, and shared their stories.
We cannot stop.
At a time when democracy and participation are more important than ever, members become the most valuable resource to one another, and we will support you. Your voices matter. Your stories, input, and feedback inform our work and drive the narrative, and we count on you to stay connected to us and to one another.
We have our work cut out for us in the coming year to raise the profile of union, labour, justice, and public service policies and issues. In the wake of the pandemic crisis when citizens are distracted, this government is trying to impose dangerous policy. We must pay attention, stay informed, talk to others, and act. Solidarity and confidence build bridges between the work that we do and the society that we live in and envision. Collectively and for the common good, we cannot afford to be silent.
– Originally published in the June 2021 issue of the MB Teacher
Danielle Fullan Kolton, Ph.D. is the General Secretary for The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.