A brief history and definition of transparent bargaining
Transparent or “open” collective bargaining is a process in which the normal rules of confidentiality are set aside in favour of openly and publicly disclosing bargaining positions and developments. This model is relatively uncommon although not unheard of in North America. In the vast majority of circumstances, and always within education bargaining in Ontario, collective bargaining has taken place in the traditional format—behind closed doors with an agreed to level of confidentiality. The philosophy behind this traditional approach is that it is meant to provide an opportunity for free flowing conversation and problem solving between the parties. However, in order to be successful, there must be a degree of trust and honesty between the parties and there must be confidence that both parties are actually looking for a solution. Neither of these conditions existed with the Ford government in the most recent round of bargaining.
Where open bargaining has been used in other jurisdictions and sectors, it has normally been agreed to by both sides of the table. That was not the case during the 2019/2020 round of bargaining. The switch to transparent bargaining last year was decided by and carried out unilaterally by OSSTF/FEESO.
The choice to use transparent bargaining and its impact
On March 15, 2019, the Ford government without advance notice or conversation, announced devastating changes to education in Ontario. These changes included funding restrictions generally and hit secondary education particularly hard through a change in the funding for average class size from 22:1 to 28:1.This, coupled with the introduction of four mandatory e-learning courses with an average class size of 35:1 would ultimately lead to a loss of approximately 25 per cent of all secondary school teachers over a four-year period. As school boards began to create plans to implement the changes in funding, in addition to the loss of teachers, many other education worker positions were also being eliminated due to financial pressures created by the government’s announcements. This problem would only get worse in the following years.
Once it was clear that the Ford government’s agenda was to deliver a crippling blow to public education in order to extract hundreds of millions of dollars, and based on the complete lack of consultation, discussion or honesty, we knew that something bold and different was required in response. It was determined that laying bare the proposals from both sides would be the most effective way to demonstrate to the public that the Federation was, in fact, seeking only inflationary adjustments to salary and benefits and was focused primarily on safeguarding supports for students and programming by protecting staffing levels and funding. This clearly countered the government’s dishonest narrative that it was all about excessive compensation demands from “greedy unions.”
Although extremely disappointing and regrettable, it was also clear from the outset that the school boards associations, and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) in particular, would not stand up to the government in defense of publicly-funded education. This left the responsibility with teachers and education workers to take on the fight. In the end, we decided to advocate through collective bargaining in a very public and transparent way. This move involved a tremendous amount of preparation in advance in order to be effectively launched and implemented.
Throughout the collective bargaining process, all official proposals and counter-proposals were posted for members and the broader public to view. In addition, a summary of what had happened during each bargaining session was posted for all to see. The government and school board associations attempted to blunt this strategy by embedding political spin and rhetoric into their bargaining proposals, but those tactics proved entirely ineffective as their self-serving statements received very little attention from either the public or the media.
Assessing the political impact of transparent bargaining
The decision to move to transparent bargaining had two goals. First, transparent bargaining has the potential for democratizing the bargaining process somewhat by allowing members a closer look at what is happening. The hope is that by choosing transparency, unions build a closer relationship with their members. Second, transparent bargaining has strategic potential. By forcing key issues to be dealt with in public, it forces the employer to defend its efforts to gain cuts and concessions.
Over the next year, OSSTF/FEESO will be taking a close look at whether transparent bargaining succeeded in terms of increasing member mobilization and the extent to which it supported a successful bargaining strategy. This work is not yet completed, but some insights may be available from the Minister of Education Stephen Lecce’s comments about OSSTF/FEESO’s transparent bargaining strategy.
Between October 2019 and March 2020, the Minister held eight media availabilities at Queen’s Park. On six of those eight occasions, he referred directly to OSSTF/FEESO’s decision to post substantive proposals to the Bargaining for Education website (bargainingforeducation.ca). Although the Minister referred to transparent bargaining much less often than online learning, class size, and other major issues, he did reference it more than all-day kindergarten, investments in mental health spending, his concern for vulnerable families, or the supposedly ‘cyclical’ nature of education unions’ labour disruptions. When he talked about OSSTF/FEESO’s transparent bargaining strategy, he did it in one of two ways: to justify why he was commenting on a specific issue or to draw attention to OSSTF/FEESO’s refusal to make concessions on major issues.
Here are three examples of the first type of comment:
- “Since the beginning of this process, OSSTF has publicized their proposals and the government’s. Given that reality, I’m here today before you to contextualize why we have made this move and what we’re hoping to achieve from it and that’s to keep children in class in the province of Ontario.” (2019–10–24)
- “I’m providing this because, to be frank, and I say this respectfully, I never really wanted to be in front of you disclosing this number because…. I say this in the sense that we opt, we, governments of all parties opt, negotiate at the table. OSSTF has made a determination to publicize this. And so I’m providing you with the high level details because I think it’s a public interest argument that you should know what we tabled, given that it will be released ostensibly in short order.” (2019–10–24)
- “We table them, they get posted, so therefore, it’s my duty to communicate it with my voice, not through the unions…” (2019–12–10)
From a political communications perspective, this is a win. It indicates that the Minister was pulled away from his key messaging and that, even better, he was forced to discuss issues he would otherwise have preferred to avoid. Moreover, it may have driven at least some reporters and listeners to
bargainingforeducation.ca, where they would have been exposed to research and other communications pieces in support of OSSTF/FEESO’s positions. It also may have helped cement perception of OSSTF/FEESO as committed to evidence and openness.
As a communicator, Minister Lecce loves to draw contrasts. As bargaining proceeded, one of his go-to rhetorical devices was to claim that the government was bargaining in good faith as evidenced by having made “major moves” on key issues. In fact, he made a claim of this sort in each of the eight media availabilities he held at Queen’s Park over this period. In several instances, he tried to contrast the government’s ‘reasonableness’ with OSSTF/FEESO’s refusal to make concessions. Here are some
- “Now again, the benefit we have of this process is that you’re able to check the OSSTF website, which categorically has seen not a singular example of a move by the union. Not one.” (2019–11–28)
- “Their website tells a story. Not one substantive move.” (2019–12–06)
- “In the context of OSSTF, which at least, is publicized, you can see it for yourself. There has been not a material, substantive change since they tabled their only proposal, in the beginning of late summer-early fall.” (2020–01–15)
As our review of the bargaining strategy continues, this refusal to make concessions will be examined more closely. Public opinion polling data from the period before COVID-19 started throwing a wrench in bargaining and education alike showed that most parents thought we were on the right track with our demands. Most observers supported OSSTF/FEESO’s position on online learning and class size in particular. In that context, having the Minister reinforce our position while again sending people to one of our communications hubs would likely have supported the overall strategy.
Communications strategies and the growth of public support
The goal from the outset of the No Cuts to Education and Here for Students campaigns was to foster greater support for our bargaining positions and to situate this support in the context of our goal to improve education in Ontario. It was a simple message that cuts would lead to a deterioration of the quality of education in the publicly-funded system. Coupled with that was an attempt to demonstrate the underlying desire of the Conservative government to move towards a model of private education.
Because transparent bargaining allowed members and the public to know what our values are and how they manifested themselves in our bargaining asks, communicating to members meant making clear parallels between our asks and the government’s strips. The juxtaposition of our “no cuts” to the government’s ongoing reductions in funding for the system made for clear messaging that the public could grasp. For the first time, OSSTF/FEESO made social media a leading element in our communications strategy during bargaining. Graphics, animations, print media ads, video segments, member interviews, and picket leaflets were all effectively able to reference OSSTF/FEESO’s real positions at the bargaining table.
With over 100 different graphics and animations produced between the March 2019 Conservative announcement of its drastic cuts to education and final ratification of the Central Agreement in May 2020, the communications approach delivered direct and accessible messaging to the public. These materials also gave members clear speaking points to use when engaging in one-on-one political action. The membership has never been given such a prominent role in the work of shaping the face of bargaining and
An additional communications benefit of transparent bargaining was the increased visibility it brought to education workers in the province. Despite the government’s slow move to referencing “education workers” and identifying their unique roles in the education system, OSSTF/FEESO messaging and public access to the education worker positions held by the union, led to a significantly increased awareness of the vital role education workers play in Ontario’s education system.
When the membership took to the picket lines across the province for 13 different strike actions and dozens of additional information pickets, they were equipped with the understanding of what OSSTF/FEESO was asking for. They had the tools to stand proudly and speak out against the cuts that Ford and Lecce continued to insist were good for students and good for learning. Images of members in parkas, facing extreme weather, wholly united kept public education in the forefront of the public eye. #NoCutsToEducation and #HereForStudents quickly became rallying cries heard across the province. “No Cuts to Education” as a central tag line not only unified the membership, it also unified an important grass-roots ally—parents, grandparents, caregivers, and students were all united in their support for Ontario’s education workers and teachers. It was not uncommon for members of the public to ask members for one of their No Cuts buttons or bumper magnets—the branding and the message was simple and it worked for the public.
Ratifying in a pandemic
The onset of pandemic-necessitated shutdowns to much of the world in March 2020, almost a year after Ford’s devastating cuts to education were announced, meant that the face of bargaining changed. Moving to virtual bargaining sessions and then through ratification information meetings and online voting was a twist that nobody could have foreseen. However, the ratification of provincial collective agreements for both the education worker and teacher/occasional teacher tables was achieved in May of 2020. As we continue to work towards local Bargaining Unit collective agreements across the province, OSSTF/FEESO is confident that the use of transparent bargaining had a significant impact on the outcome of negotiations. Whether or not this tactic is used by other labour organizations in the future is still to be seen, but what is known is that the membership and their belief in this unique approach to bargaining had a significant impact on our success and on public understanding of what is meant when we say that OSSTF/FEESO is committed to protecting and enhancing public education.