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Ottawa teachers plan to repay McGuinty kindness

Ottawa Citizen

June 19, 2011

Lee Greenberg

Chris Herhault
 
Unionized workers to reach out to Liberals, to volunteer in election campaign
 
TORONTO - Unionized Ottawa high school teachers, who, for eight years have benefitted from a series of rich contracts from the Liberal government, are planning to repay the kindness in the coming provincial election.

Those teachers will reach out to Liberal candidates and campaign managers, according to a document written by a member of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) district executive, volunteering their time to help re-elect Liberals.

They are also considering asking to be released from their teaching duties during the campaign.

The document, a copy of which was found on the Internet, does not mention helping any candidates other than Liberals.

Dan Maxwell, president of the OSSTF District 25 (Ottawa) bargaining unit, said the union has not decided who to endorse, but added it's unlikely they will support Conservatives.

"I mean, our working conditions, as a result of the initiatives that the Liberals have taken, are considerably better than when they were under the Harris regime," he said in an interview. "And certainly people who have been in the education business for any length of time have an appreciation for what the two things look like. One is definitely better than the other."

Under eight years of Liberal rule, high school teacher salaries in Ottawa have risen by 24.5 per cent. A teacher with 10 years experience will earn $94,650 in 2011-12. Department heads earn an additional $5,853, while teachers with a postgraduate degree will reap an additional $620 or $1,238 annually depending on the degree.

There have also been no labour disruptions in schools over that time.

One observer says the union activism is clearly designed as a "thank you" to the provincial Grits.

"I think you would be hard pressed to say that the average Ontarian's salary has gone up 25 per cent in the last seven or eight years," says Derek Fildebrandt, spokesman for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"They obviously feel loyal to (Premier Dalton McGuinty) because he promised them labour peace at any price after the Harris years. So they're willing to go out of their way to make sure he's re-elected."

The report by the Ottawa OSSTF local states its members will be "inquiring about release time for teachers providing volunteer time to candidates."
Under its collective agreement, the union has 75 total days it can release teachers for federation business, with no one teacher allowed to miss more than 20 days.

But Maxwell says the union has since ruled out making that request.

"I'm not taking teachers out of the classroom to work on campaigns," he said. "It's not really feasible with our commitments with our own federation business to be releasing."

The provincial election campaign begins Sept. 7 and culminates in a vote Oct. 6.
Ahead of that campaign, other union locals have given similar indications that they will work to keep Liberal MPPs - and, in one case, New
Democrats as well - in office.

A Toronto branch of the OSSTF organized two training seminars with endorsed candidates designed to provide teachers "with intensive training to be an effective campaign worker."

Doug Jolliffe, the branch's president, urged his members to prevent a Progressive Conservative party victory, which he likened to a "northern version of the Tea Party."

He told teachers a Hudak government would lead to more teaching duties (seven courses rather than six), more on-call and supervision duties, poorer quality adult education, deteriorating schools and the possibility of charter schools. Local bargaining will be removed and teachers and bureaucrats will become scapegoats as they are blamed for unspecified offences.

"We will return to a period of constant fights just to try to maintain what we have with little chance to continue improvements we have gained in the past seven years," Jolliffe wrote.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, meanwhile, have announced a $60 levy to fund a political action campaign for the election. The idea behind the levy is the election of "an education friendly government," according to the union.

The union's president, Jim Ryan, has said that a PC government "would threaten the common good" and has surveyed his members asking if they would be willing to leave their teaching posts to volunteer on a campaign.

Elaine McMahon, president of OECTA Ottawa, denies there is any favouritism being paid to the Liberals and says her members won't give up teaching to volunteer on campaigns.

"We are just encouraging our teachers to be well informed and to get out and vote," McMahon said in an interview. "If people want to volunteer for candidates they can do it on their own time. We don't release anybody."

Nevertheless, the union's messaging has angered some of its members.

"They said the money was going to lobby for issues for teachers in the upcoming election," says Scott Searle, a civics and history teacher at St. Peter High School in Orléans. "But I think ostensibly that means to lobby against the Conservatives."

Searle points out that Hudak comes from a family of teachers.

"I think it's unfair that (union boss) James Ryan is using my money to demonize someone who's legitimately trying to better Ontario," he said.

The Conservative election platform says the party will introduce "paycheque protection" to allow union members to opt out of supporting political causes through their dues.

On a provincial level, teachers are also cornerstone members of the Liberal-friendly lobby group Working Families Coalition, which spends millions on advertisements attacking Conservatives.

Their ads included a devastating 2003 spot featuring a shot of tuxedo-clad former premier Ernie Eves, who was shown grinning slyly over the tag line: "Not this time, Ernie."

Critics say the teachers unions have gone too far.

"This is a union who benefit from the Liberals being in power, who are playing this game," said Ottawa area MPP Lisa MacLeod.

"It should be illegal," says Fildebrandt of the taxpayers' federation. "Unions should be restricted to collective bargaining. They should not have the legal power to move in the political sphere."

Fildebrandt says the activism also creates a "perverse cycle" that would leave Liberals beholden to the unions if they held on to power.
Not everyone thinks the union activity is offside, however.

Annie Kidder, a longtime advocate who heads People for Education, says unions all over North America are similarly engaged.
"I think it's their prerogative," she said. "Unions have always been very politically engaged."