Toward the end of this issue’s cover story profiling Harvey Bischof, OSSTF/FEESO’s incoming president, Harvey makes an observation that strikes me as an almost perfect affirmation of the Federation’s oft-stated commitment to “protecting and enhancing public education.” Speaking about effective collective bargaining, Harvey points out that “…by advancing the interests of our members, we’ve also always advanced the quality of education.” He further explains that, “I’ve always found it interesting that our members insist that we bargain on behalf of their ability to do their jobs well…that we try to secure for them the ability to do the best possible job that they can for the students that they work with.”
This is similar to another point we sometimes try to make, usually when our members’ working conditions are under attack by the government or the school boards, which is that those working conditions are also our students’ learning conditions. But the message Harvey delivers is more nuanced than that. He’s pointing out that, for OSSTF/FEESO, it’s about much more than just securing or protecting conditions that make our members’ working lives less arduous or more comfortable. It’s about creating conditions that allow and inspire members to do their jobs well. And when OSSTF/FEESO secures working conditions that allow educators and education workers to do their jobs better, then we are demonstrating that there really is no conflict between the quality of education and the interests of our members. More often than not, in fact, our members’ interests and the quality of public education are very much intertwined.
Other commentators have also pointed out that education unions have played a major role in improving public education over the years. A few years ago, Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin, paraphrasing prominent academic and former BC Deputy Education Minister Charles Ungerleider, wrote that “…almost all important reforms in public schools came via union bargaining.” Ungerleider cited special needs programs and smaller class sizes as two examples.
We don’t have to look far for current evidence that the work OSSTF/FEESO does on behalf of members also has a positive impact on the quality of education. Well over half of the funding increases included in the 2017–2018 Grants for Student Needs (GSN’s), which were announced in April, were directly related to provisions negotiated in the contract extension agreements that were reached in February between the government and education unions, including OSSTF/FEESO. This represents an increased investment in education of about $500 million that simply would not be there had it not been negotiated by education unions.
While collective bargaining may be our primary tool, it is not the only method by which OSSTF/FEESO achieves ongoing improvements in the quality of education. We have for years been providing members with effective and efficient professional development of the highest quality, designed and delivered, often at the request of school boards, by highly-trained and experienced professionals. It would not be a stretch to suggest that OSSTF/FEESO is significantly more proactive than the school boards, the government, or any regulatory body in helping to ensure the quality of education our members deliver.
Our Federation also expends substantial effort in the political arena, lobbying government ministers and MPPs from all parties to support policies that improve the learning environment. At our Lobby Day in March, well over a hundred OSSTF/FEESO members met with more than 90 MPPs at Queen’s Park, including the premier, cabinet ministers and both opposition leaders, to talk about violence in our education workplaces, and to insist on action. All indications are that our efforts had an impact, and MPPs understood that this is an issue that negatively impacts students as much as it affects our members. We have every reason to believe that our efforts will result in positive action that will include improved staffing and more supports to address the needs of students.
Ontario students and the quality of the education they receive are positively influenced by all kinds of OSSTF/FEESO initiatives, including our support for projects such as the documentary film A Better Man (see page 7). As a result of that support, a unique learning module for grade 12 students, developed through a collaboration between OSSTF/FEESO and the film’s co-producers, will tackle the issue of intimate partner violence and explore healthy and unhealthy behaviour choices in relationships.
Virtually everything OSSTF/FEESO undertakes—bargaining, professional development, political lobbying, or other work in the broader community—has a tangible, positive impact on education in Ontario. When we talk about our commitment to protecting and enhancing public education, we’re not just quoting a tagline. We’re identifying an integral aspect of who we are and what we do.