So this is indeed my “Last Word” for Education Forum. Having the opportunity to share my thoughts through this venue has been only one of the privileges of the role I’ve held for the last four years. Representing educators working from JK to university, across the four publicly-funded education systems, in independent schools, and post-secondary has, of course, been the greatest privilege. And in the process, I’ve been given the opportunity to stand up for the education system itself and all it stands for.
It has been a true honour to fight, shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues at Provincial Office, local leaders, and members—who truly are the union—to enhance and defend an institution that I continue to believe is the most critical democratizer, the most important support for equity, we have in our society. Publicly-funded education has been and remains the driver of Ontario’s civic, social, and economic life. As former Premier William Davis used to say, when you get education right, everything else follows. (You may not expect me to quote a Progressive Conservative Premier but Davis was both pro-education and pro-union and stands as a giant now compared to the intellectually and ideologically stunted current PC “leadership.”)
I did not begin a career in education in order to be a unionist. It wasn’t even on my radar. But when Mike Harris came gunning for the education system with the most destructive changes we’d ever seen proposed, I looked around to see who was leading the fightback and it was unquestionably my union. Galvanizing me into union activism is the sole thing for which I thank Harris. From there on in, I thank my union for giving me the opportunities I’d never dreamed of.
The more I learned, the more I realized the truth that high quality education systems and unions go hand-in-hand. Contrary to the myth propagated by our right-wing adversaries, unions make education stronger. And why wouldn’t they? Would poor pay attract better educators? Would giving employers permission to arbitrarily discipline and discharge educators make people more interested in education careers? Would giving bureaucrats the unfettered ability to make policy changes without the voice of frontline workers lead to better decisions? Of course not.
As Dr. Charles Ungerleider has said, the proposals that truly strengthen education always come from the union side of the bargaining table. Smaller classes, more supports for special needs students, and defence of educator professional judgment have all been union proposals.
OSSTF/FEESO is not perfect; no institution is. We always have work to do in engaging members. We have more work to do in supporting equity for our members. Dismantling systemic barriers is crucial to our work. But let us not lose sight of the good we have done, for members, for students, and for the society in which we live for our 102-year history.
As I pass the torch, I wish everyone who is carrying on, as educators and unionists, nothing but the best in your crucial work. You will have my undying solidarity. Dark times will pass. The union must emerge strengthened and ready for the next challenge for the sake of everyone who benefits from our work.