The New York Times has a great article from David Leonhart where he tries to predict what life in 2022, a scant 18 months from now, will look like in America. He assumes no vaccine arrives this year, and that we continue to see waves of outbreaks and lockdowns.
From a business perspective, he talks about which business models will likely prove less than resilient in weathering the storm. Some likely casualties are those who were already vulnerable businesses…newspapers losing advertisers, traditional department stores (Eatons, Zellers, K-Mart, WoolCo, Target have all bit the dust in Canada long ago) losing out to Walmart and Amazon, and malls closing when they lose their department store anchors.
While universities in Canada are unlikely to fail, the same budget pressures are hitting them as they are in the U.S. — enrolment stability, cancelled summer programs, residence and food service fees gone, parking revenue gone, and provincial and federal budgets are taking huge beatings. I follow Alex Usher on Twitter, and he has been actively watching which universities are planning for full virtual classes in September and which ones were hoping for some sort of mid-semester return.
I was a bit surprised Leonhart uses such pedantic examples and doesn’t spend more time on the hardest-hit sectors like health in general, agriculture and food processing, aviation and tourism, and restaurants. He notes in the intro that they may disappear, but there are entire sectors that present far more disruption to human life than the loss of paper newspapers, loss of department stores and malls, or disruption in higher education options.
In the area of habits, Leonhart identifies the importance for white-collar workers that working from home, working remotely in general, has been successful, and I couldn’t agree more. Education from home is less successful, but I love the quote from Microsoft:
As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said this spring, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
Where I work in government, we have accelerated our IT plans by 2-3 years for some major projects. Things that would normally have started in 2022 or 2023 and likely would have taken 1-2 years? They’re already 50% implemented or more. Doubling bandwidth, new platforms for collaboration, massive increase in mobile infrastructure for workers with huge increases in laptop deployments. We’re one department, in one government, in one country, and we literally have bought thousands of new laptops to get people connected from home. How are manufacturers keeping up with IT demand? The short answer in some cases is that they are not keeping up. If you were looking for video cameras in the first few weeks of WFH, they were scarcer than bread yeast. Months later, stocks are returning but only because everyone already has a webcam somewhere in their digital ecosystem. Many are just using their phones. I stopped by one of the computer stores last week, and some of their shelves are looking pretty empty, particularly for larger monitors. Not enough to declare a shortage, although again, that’s partly as they’ve restocked.
I’m less enamored of Leonhart’s predictions for the US political realm, not with a fall election hanging in the balance. Trying to do similar predictions for Canada without a set election date is probably equally useless. The Liberals are in a minority situation, and will likely to continue to be, as long as the NDP keeps getting what they want on various files. But they can only go to that well so many times before the Liberals can’t afford it, and the alliance / coalition / politician’s agreement falls apart. Just as with Leonhart’s opening question — how long does this last? — the political outcomes will be shaped by the health outcomes. Where I find Leonhart’s rationale lacking when he argues for sweeping roles for government in the U.S. if Biden wins is in the reality he talked about for higher education. Government budgets are taking a sh**-kicking and while they can literally print money, at some point, the bill comes due. Spending at current levels is not even remotely sustainable. And if you want to spend your way out of a recession / depression, eventually you also have to make serious cuts to government either during or afterwards.
Nevertheless, I hope there are more prediction articles I like these. If we crowd-source a couple of thousand of them, we might even approximate a forecast or come up with a to do list for contingency planners.
As part of an update to my website, I am revamping all my featured images (https://polywogg.ca/new-featured-images-astronomy/). Having already tackled a small one (astronomy) and a large one (website and computers), I am turning my attention to a different challenge — governance. I actually have multiple categories that fall into a “governance” theme, although in many ways, “government” might be a better term for some.
I have an actual category specifically called governance, and I tend to write about a variety of things related to running a government. Elections, public administration, audits. I have more of a technical bent to my topics, and if I was completely candid, it seems like public administration would be the more likely heading. Except from time to time I go above that and intersect with policy and politics. The running of a government at a level above. Not often, but occasionally, and usually related to how the two realms — politics and public administration — intersect. At one point, I wanted a new “image” to represent all that, and given the ethereal nature of the concepts, I made up a combined image representing different parts of a governance package — politics, legislation, judicial, and the people. It’s not a huge category for me, only 30 posts out of about 1400 deal with governance issues, but it may grow once I retire.
I also used to work at CIDA dealing with international development issues. I don’t write about it very often, only 27 posts in total, and 17 of those are about one specific book where I wrote about each chapter as I went. I do like to follow what’s happening in broad trends, though, since I spent 10 years of my career dealing with the files, yet even when I do write, I tend to have a “public administration” slant to my writing, rather than development in general. I didn’t have a great idea for my international development “image”, but managed to find one that was about food security, including both growing your own food and production of meals afterwards. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’ll do.
A third area I write about regularly is the “civil service” itself. And to be honest, I haven’t had a good image to reflect that area. It’s not a lot of posts, still only about 27, but I’ve tended to bop between one of two images. First, I’ve used the general governance image shown above, but that doesn’t really reflect what we do. I have also often used the bottom right-hand corner of that governance, the one of “people” to reflect the civil service (the fourth pillar of the governance stream). Which is fine. Except that I have also used that one a LOT for something else — my posts about HR in the government. In particular, when I’m writing items for my HR guide, I’ve tended to use that image as the theme. However, to be honest, I don’t really like it for my HR guide. I need a new one for that, so I can use it here now. And, as noted, there’s symmetry with the larger combined governance image.
Which leaves me with two very specific areas to deal with. One is a “one-off” conference that I helped organize way back in 2002. The reports and docs are on my site (13 pages), and I use the logo we had for the conference.
The other is my HR guide. I have struggled with this guide for a long time, in varying forms. Mostly I have used my large tree frog image to reflect my branding for it.
But a few years ago, before I ran into some publishing snags with the Conflict of Interest people, I went ahead and had the full cover page designed for the guide.
Okay, okay, it’s a little large for a featured image for a post. 🙂 So, I’ve played with cropping a bit, and I have this.
I ain’t gonna lie…I really like that one. Okay, good. Governance images are set!
I’ve been following the TBS announcements, as most government employees have been, trying to figure out if and when they will tell us simply to work from home across the board. Right now, managers are told to be as supportive as possible for people wanting to work from home. Yet we can’t even call it telework as most of them will have no “tele” options at all — many don’t have a connection or app to connect remotely, and for those who do, most networks don’t have the bandwidth or server power to handle EVERYONE logging in remotely.
On Reddit, one user started a thread and included the phrase:
Let’s be honest – in many cases we actually can work from home and should absolutely be doing so.
Thread | Reddit
I don’t know if they are a manager who has ever managed telework employees or are an employee who has ever worked from home more than a day or two, but the level of assumptions in that statement suggests to me that the answer is neither.
Most organizations, government or otherwise, are extremely “place-based” centres of work. Outside of coding, most companies and businesses require you to be onsite in order to sell stuff, deal with customers, serve food, work in a mine, drill for oil, etc. Most are not set up for e-delivery or even e-working. There are entire academic disciplines on this for the future of work and have been for over 40 years. The Utopian idea of “living in a remote cabin and working in a virtual office” hasn’t manifested itself yet.
Look at universities…almost all have cancelled classes and are “moving” things online. But that is a combination of videos and email. It isn’t true networking or e-delivery, it is “hey, no classes, but I’ll do some cheap-ass video and pretend it’s a lecture.” Universities have had the technology to move ALL of their stuff online for years, yet the vast majority is still delivered in person. Watch the tension this coming week as professors who can barely type suddenly have to offer online classes vs. some other professors who will do great and think, “Hmm, why am I bothering to have people come to class if I can do this?”.
Government work is no different. We don’t have the infrastructure, the bandwidth, skills or training to manage at a distance, even if / when the work could be delivered that way. People think alternative work arrangements, hoteling, etc are suddenly going to lead to a mass increase in distance working/teleworking, and I appreciate their efforts, but their assumptions that it will happen tomorrow is overly optimistic.
So let’s look at some simple classifications…the vast majority of AS or PM positions either support or process stuff. Can you do that from home? Not unless you have a connection.
The paperwork can’t get to you easily, we can’t scan everything, you need to be able to do stuff in online databases / financial systems, email tracking, etc. Most of it also contains info about either Canadians or other employees, and you can’t work on it at home without violating just about every privacy legislation code we have. We don’t have secure filing cabinets, secure connections, nada. So what are the AS group going to “administer” easily? The short answer is not much. They can take a few things home that will get them a couple of days down the road, but if they don’t have a connection, most of their work will grind to a halt. They are e-enabled for just about everything at work. And if you’re a PM at Service Canada, we need you at work to process all the new claims coming in so affected Canadians have some money, most of which have systems that are uber protected with all the SIN numbers of every Cdn in the country. Not going to open those systems up from home.
For the EC community, we can likely write memos, most of our work is unclassified, well, EXCEPT at this time of year when tons of it is related to budget secrecy. So what else can you do at home without your work connection? Research? Sure. For awhile. Meetings by phone or computer? Sure, but since many EC’s work is responsive to demands from above, some of that demand is going to diminish. Trends and analysis? Well, all your stats aren’t coming with you, since the data sets are likely too big to access at home. Audits and evaluations? Hard to submit your requests for docs to people who don’t have access to their docs. Corporate planning? Ground to a halt since the only priority is the virus.
But let’s back up, and simply ask ourselves what you need to work from home effectively in any government telework / work-from-home / work-at-a-distance situation:
A. First and foremost, you need a type of work that is amenable to being done remotely for a sustainable period (not just a day here or a day there). With creativity, I suspect you can get that up to 20% of the government’s work, the rest not so much. And that is even excluding the Service Canada folks delivering benefits to Canadians. If we REALLY get innovative, you might get that up to 40% over time, but even that I think is radically more aggressive than any MPs will be willing to agree to. People complain the manager won’t trust employees working from home; if you think the MANAGER is skeptical, wait until MPs hear from Canadians who already think government workers don’t do anything anyway.
B. Secondly, you need employees who are effective at working from home. Working from home does not mean tending your kids all day so you don’t have to pay daycare while being interrupted every 10 minutes to entertain them. And with schools and daycares currently closed, this will be the reality for many during the coming weeks. In addition, they need to be comfortable working in relative isolation without becoming demoralized, unfocused, distracted by the latest binge-watch option from Disney+. I’m not talking “lazy gits” who will milk the system, I am talking more like mild introverts to extreme extroverts going into Castaway isolation where you start talking to volleyballs because you’re all alone all day.
If you’re into the Insights Discovery lego block personality types, blues do better at adapting to working at home, while greens and yellows go crazy without regular meaningful contact, and reds adapt. There are ways to cope for each group, but generally, analytical introverts who generally hate people anyway like working from home, the rest have to adapt. There is a reason why a lot of “blue” writers working on their novels and movie scripts do so in coffee shops — they need some regular human contact.
Some parts are great — fewer interruptions, no commute, etc. But you also miss out on the informal info sharing. Oh, look, Jennifer just came back from a meeting with the boss and is sharing info as she passes by, which happens in the office, but if Jennifer goes to her desk, she doesn’t feel it is big enough to send an email. So if you’re not at your desk because you don’t have a desk there, you don’t know what happened until a formal meeting or update later.
C. We also need managers who are not only open-minded about telework and trusting of the employees to be producing, but ones who actually know how to manage at a distance. I’ve done this, and I’m generally considered a more personnel-friendly manager than most. Yet I will admit that it’s tough AF.
For example, oh, look, there’s a new tasking, it just came out, let’s rally three people to get on it, due in an hour, let’s get going. Oh, did I think to call the person who’s working at home? No, I rounded up the three people in front of me and threw us all in a room to work it out. Can I call them? Sure. Will I always think to? Nope. I should, don’t get me wrong, but it is a mental adjustment for managers to remember. Just like Jennifer in the previous scenario.
But it takes managerial discipline and practice…regular phone check-ins, heavy use of messaging apps, etc. And the recognition that while certain types of work are more amenable to doing face-to-face, you can try to find a way to restructure it so it can be done at a distance. Many managers give in to the default of giving longer-term research type projects to telework people because it is amenable to doing alone anywhere and the “hot files” to the people in the office.
D. Perhaps as a precondition of teleworking, we need the technical infrastructure that supports telework. Not just having a computer at home or even a remote connection, but fast bandwidth, a home printer, paying for people’s internet or a share of their internet, headsets, ergonomic setups, quick video conferencing at the touch of a button not ad hoc options through Zoom or Slack or WebEx or WhatsApp. Dedicated tools that run off your desktop for managers and teleworkers. If I can’t stop by your cubicle to give you the latest update, or I can’t include you in a quick brainstorming huddle by clicking a video conferencing button, you’re missing out. We think we’re being supportive when we do teleconferencing in meeting rooms…pffft. How about video conferencing from your desktop as the minimum?
E. For success to happen, you also need to form a team that works well in a hybrid world. If telework approvals are opaque, the questions come pretty fast. “Why is Johnny working from home? I’d like to work from home too!” Even when Johnny is a researcher doing a three-month slow project and the person asking is the administrative assistant who coordinates all the paper traffic in the office on quick turnarounds using the internal protected system. There are always going to be some jobs that are place-based, at least in the short-term (as I said, we could aggressively innovate processes that might help with that, but not on 2 days’ notice). But more than the internal issues, the team needs training and practice in working in a hybrid world too so they remember to call Johnny at home and include him in the discussion, him on things, ask him questions, include him in brainstorming. We have phones, we need to use them, even while we’re waiting for video conferencing to catch up.
But if we need:
“telework-able” types of work and processes
+ employees trained and effective at working at a distance
+ managers who know how to manage at a distance
+ infrastructure, not to “cope” with distance, but to embrace and support it
+ teams that are trained to work in hybrid environments,
we definitely don’t have that currently. And telling people to work from home will work for some workers for about two days and then they’ll have nothing to do other than CSPS or SABA training.
For those who have managed employees at a distance, it often works “best” when regardless of the other variable, the employee is self-motivated to work at a distance. Actively calling in, regular production of work, a clear demonstration of availability, creative solutions to work. Passive people who sit back and wait for the manager to send them something to do start to look like slackers who aren’t producing, and it is often reflected in their performance assessments when it comes to competencies like initiative and working with others.
I’ve seen a lot of people working at a distance for extended periods of time, and just about every time, I see their career take a hit. At most, they get “succeeded” in their rating. It is almost impossible to get approval for “succeeded+” or even higher if you are not visible to the management team on a regular basis. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for some people, but the culture is nowhere near ready to support/embrace telework. At best, we seem to be still at the “tolerate” stage. Everyone is working to get there, and maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I don’t see it “switching” in time for wild success in the next 2-3 weeks or longer. It will be a good eye-opener for a lot of people, just as it will be for universities.
Heck, we even had challenges for snow days — people who could log in or who could make it into work “having to work” while others stayed home and still got paid. Extend that over several weeks, and the dysfunction is going to grow even more.
Just my opinion, of course, as an “ok, (stick-in-the-mud) Boomer”.
People should support education, which is mostly about teaching (a narrowing);
The Government made a bad policy decision
Teachers are willing to strike for the bad policy decision i.e., the issues
Except the issues aren’t really “strike worthy”. Funding levels are not significantly off from what they were — we’re not talking cuts like Alberta is seeing for health care. Larger class sizes have actually been more or less settled already with the latest offer, regardless of how few schools would actually see those theoretical limits. Layoffs will be done by attrition, local priority funding is going to school boards and has been increased, and violence in the classroom is based on faulty data.
Not exactly a strong rallying cry when you look at the substance. Which leaves only two other items — pay and benefits. The nuts and bolts of labour relations. And a trigger for the other issues that unions are claiming they are fighting for, for the “kids”, they say.
But are they “strike” issues?
You might think I’m referring to whether they are important enough or not to strike, the same issue as I already outlined. The so-called crisis may not exist, but the much bigger question is a fundamental one of governance.
The majority of the issues — all of them except pay and benefits — are not actually labour relations issues. I’m not saying that as a matter of opinion, I’m saying it as a matter of actual fact in the teacher contracts.
Special education funding? Not there.
Size of potential layoffs or firings or number of teachers hired? Not there.
Funding levels of education? Not there.
Violence in the classroom? Not there.
Use of merit-based hiring? Not there.
Teachers are told by the unions that this is terrible, this is evidence of the government not caring. But the unions are lying. The reason these “terms” are not in the contract or the offers is because they are NOT actually labour law issues. So they can’t be in the contract. In fact, as everyone keeps pointing out, these are PUBLIC POLICY issues to be decided by governments through public policy processes (like elections, stakeholder consultations, internal analysis, etc.), not through labour relations negotiations. In addition, to the extent they have to negotiate them, they are terms to be negotiated between the Government and the local school boards. Not with teachers. Because it isn’t part of the teacher contract.
The biggest priority of all is Class Sizes, supposedly at least. And in the last contract, it doesn’t appear. Instead, there is a non-binding “letter of commitment” from the Government outlining its intended policy approach. It can’t be in the contract because it’s not a labour law term or condition. It’s a public policy issue and not only will labour law not recognize it as a labour law issue, but the Crown also can’t fetter its sovereign rights through an illegal contract. Instead, classroom size is between school boards and schools, while the regulations on caps come from the Ministry of Education. And that can’t be “contracted” for, it’s not a labour law issue. And the exclusion of it is a black and white labour law condition. Look right now at the health care crisis in Alberta. Massive chaos over plans to adjust the health care budget. Clinics will have to close, doctors may leave to work in other provinces. Wait times will jump. And yet, the majority of the issues are not labour law conditions for doctors to negotiate, they’re public policy issues. Which the medical community is mobilizing around. Politically. Not mis-using labour negotiations to extort public policy positions.
In history, it is hard to find true comparators, because unions are more recent phenomenon. However, prior to the 1900s, attempts to “force” public policy changes through any means other than public policy discussions or as part of general democracy/governance were generally considered treason. In the 1920s and 30s, it was called extortion and racketeering.
Labour law helped clean some of that up, legitimized unions and the interest of “labour” in contracts. But as labour law has embraced unions and rule of employment law, it has equally been very clear over the last 80 years — public policy elements are best left for governments to decide in Parliament, not in labour contracts. Pay and benefits is the only element in the current list that can be part of the labour-negotiated contract, and labour law rules have turned “treason” and “extortion/racketeering” allegations into something more mundane. If you attempt to add things to a negotiation that are not part of the actual contract, i.e. things that cannot be part of the contract, it is called bargaining in bad faith.
Unions aren’t dumb but they might have got outsmarted
Unions know all this. They know that the public policy issues cannot be part of the contract. Yet if they focus on only the pay and benefits elements, no one will support the strike action. They needed the public policy issues to galvanize support. Not only from the public, but from the teachers too. Many of the teachers want an increase in pay and benefits, sure, likely even deserve it, but many wouldn’t go on strike for it. They care, but they care more about the students. For the unions to get members to go on strike, they know they need the teachers to go into a frenzy on the policy issues. That’s where they care. That’s where they’ll want to strike. Yet, as I outlined above and before, the reality i.e. the TRUTH not the rhetoric is that the policy issues are neither actually serious enough (both before and with the latest offer) to justify a strike nor do they have anything to do with actual labour relations terms and conditions for the contracts.
But for the union gambit to work — pushing for more money, better public policy, supported by teachers and parents — the unions need sheep who don’t look too closely at what is on the table. They need them whip-ready to strike and protest and stand on street corners with signs. Galvanizing support, even if it is based on false portrayals by both sides.
And last weekend, the Government of Ontario apparently conceded a bunch of elements and put a bunch of the public policy issues to bed. Class sizes? Reduced considerably, in line with what public polling says parents are willing to live with. Funding for special ed given to school boards (rather than direct to schools), but essentially restored. But what they weren’t willing to budge on was the limited pay raise to 1% and the benefits raise to 4%.
This basically takes the wind out of the union’s sails for galvanizing support. And in a normal negotiation, the union would tell the membership about the offer, and either put it to a vote or at least reassess remaining elements and desire to keep striking or negotiate remaining elements. But it appears the union decided to do what PSAC did back during the federal pay equity negotiations. They didn’t tell the membership about the “offer”, they just said “no”.
PSAC was faced with a similar problem back when it was negotiating pay equity. The two parties had agreed on the payouts for more than 95% of the members and TBS wanted to send out their cheques. The money was in an account, the computer was programmed, they were ready to press print. And PSAC said “no” — they wouldn’t agree until all the members’ negotiations were done. Why? Because once the 95% were paid, PSAC had no leverage to force concessions on the remaining 5%. At one point it was so bad, it was more like 98% vs. 2% remaining. And the Government of Canada i.e., TBS was stuck. As part of negotiations and labour law, the employer cannot violate the rules of negotiations and speak directly to PSAC members. It violates tons of rules and equates with bargaining in bad faith while undermining the union negotiators. It’s a way to “break” unions. So the rules say you can’t do it. But GoC was being crucified in the press — constant delays, no settlements, PSAC giving press conferences slamming and slagging them all over the place. And members listening to PSAC, duly lapping up every lie. Believing that it was all a mess still.
TBS reiterated their proposal to PSAC to pay out the 98%, and PSAC apparently refused again to take it to members. So TBS found a loophole in the rules. While TBS could not tell the members what they were proposing to the union negotiators, they COULD fulfill their reporting and accountability responsibility to Canadians and Parliament and TELL THEM the status of the negotiations. So they held a press conference and told Canadians. And indirectly, PSAC members. Shortly thereafter, PSAC agreed to binding arbitration for the remaining 2% and they got what they wanted anyway (wonky ways to calculate the last 2%). But it ended the delays and cheques started flowing.
This past weekend, an offer was apparently communicated to the unions. When asked about it by the press earlier today, the union refused to answer the question in public (they know if they admit it that members will be VERY unhappy AND if they end up in arbitration, the arbitrator will crucify them for it). I hope union members decide to ask the question of them too and force answers out of them. Because the government agreed to just about everything that was asked for except the pay and benefits. It’s not perfectly everything, but enough for most members to probably say, “Okay, settle, no more strikes”. Yet the union wouldn’t tell the members the details.
So, five days later, the government responded to the “no”. They held a press conference and reported to Ontarians and parents where they were in the negotiations and what they were proposing. A complete end-run around the union executive, which was completely pissed. Almost every one of their quotes today was a refusal to answer any questions about when they had first heard the offer and then a complaint that this wasn’t a negotiation, it was a press conference. Yep, that’s how governments roll now when they make an offer and the union refuses to tell its members. And today they are scrambling. Claiming it wasn’t in writing (yeah, public policy proposals don’t go in writing, which the unions know), that it was time-limited to a year (like all government budgeting commitments), and that it was just dumped on them at a press conference (yeah, cuz it seems you refused to tell your members you got a significantly new offer).
Presumably, teachers care when their union lies to them as much as they claim to care when the government lies to them. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen of the sheep online, they lapped up what the union said and just ploughed ahead regurgitating the union’s spin.
So the issues they’re trying to “change” are not suitable for labour negotiations, but rather public policy processes, which they themselves admit. And the government “conceded” on most of them anyway. People have been wondering if the government disagreed with the union, then are they folding or have they agreed with their rationale?
From an outside perspective, the GoO has a huge problem. They are constitutionally obligated to provide education services. All it takes is one parent (or more likely a coalition of parents and thinktanks) to sue them for not providing educational services to their kids, and they’re in deep doodoo. People tend to forget that we have laws that say every child must be in some form of school. Legally obligating parents to educate them, which also adds duties and obligations for the government. It’s why they have to do full special education integration — because the students have legal rights to the same education, not a separate classroom. They have to be fully integrated. Anything less violates disability legislation, the provincial and federal bills of rights, and likely the Charter too. I try not to notice that the same “reasons” teachers and unions say integration can’t be done are the same wordings that teachers said “blacks couldn’t be integrated with whites” in schools in the Southern U.S.
But that leverage is why teacher strikes work. The union whips the members into striking on “issues” because they know with the kids as leverage, they can extort concessions from the government on a range of issues they can’t achieve through normal political processes. Eventually, the Government has no choice but to budge.
But it’s not “labour negotiation”. It’s achieving public policy changes they couldn’t get through rallies and elections by pointing a rights and Charter challenge cannon at Government, who can either leave students to be cannon fodder or eventually concede. That’s called extortion.
People should support education –> People should support education, which is mostly about teaching (a narrowing);
Teachers disagree with the government’s approach –> The Government made a bad policy decision
The next sub-element is that teachers believe the government made a bad policy decision.
In order for us to decide it was a bad policy, let’s first articulate what exactly the elements of that “policy” are that are irking the teachers:
Education funding levels;
Non-renewal of lapsing “local priorities” funding;
Violence in the classroom; and,
Salary increase of 1%.
I confess in advance that I’m going to fall off the logic chain pretty fast in this list. Let’s start with the overall heading — education funding.
While the Government is claiming an increase in education funding of $1.2B, it’s a misleading figure, mainly as it includes a lot of money in there for child-care. When CBC boiled down the numbers, they found an increase of only $133M on a base budget of $25B, and I’m fine to go with their numbers.
I’ve said already that I’m a huge supporter of education, and I’m also pretty good at understanding macro economics, government budgeting, and large-scale policy sectors. Let’s start with two needed clarification about EVERY budget total by governments:
It is part of a larger budget of the whole government, which affects how much is available for that sector; and,
Budgets include base amounts plus temporary funding for special areas.
There is no MAGIC formula that will tell you what the overall budget for the entire province should be, nor what share should be devoted to education. No science or economic model will tell you the “right” answer. It is not unlike your own home budget. How much do you spend on shelter, food, transportation in a given month? Suppose you spend 40% on shelter. Is that a good number? Suppose you spend 60% on shelter. Is that a better number or a worse number? There is no “right” answer to that question, unless covering your basic human needs exceed your income. Some people want to reduce one number as low as possible so they move out to the suburbs and have a longer commute, giving them more money for other things; other people want to live close by to the city and pay higher portions of their income on shelter but avoid commuting time. There is no single “right” answer to that question. There are merely policy and budgeting choices to be made. This Government was elected on an austerity platform — they said they would reduce the deficit and that is what they are doing by reducing spending overall. No surprise there. And since they were democratically elected to do that, it’s hard to say their choice is “bad” or “wrong”, particularly when you look at the actual numbers.
As I said, the CBC has calculated the base budget for all of education at $25B, as per the government’s own public estimates. The Government is claiming it is increasing the budget by $1.2B, but that is misleading as they are including things like child-care in there. The “core” / “base” budget is only going up by $133M. About half a percent.
So let’s put this in clear perspective. The “crisis” that everyone is screaming about is that the increase was only half a percent, when they think it should have been more. Not exactly the dramatic “cuts” the teachers unions are claiming.
However, the pain is in the temporary funding. In the past, there was temporary funding for so-called “local priorities”. This was meant to be temporary funding for school boards to adapt to local pressures. And like all temporary funding, when it ends, everyone screams that they’ve been “cut” even though it was meant to be temporary. That’s kind of like saying “I made a lot of money last year because I worked a bunch of overtime” and saying “this year, my boss cut my salary” because you’re not working as much OT this year.
The additional wrinkle in there is that nobody knows what’s going to happen with the local priority funding. It wasn’t included in the budget i.e., it looks like the local “top-ups” are gone, but last year’s ECE negotiations added $60M+ back into the budget. As temporary funding.
Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t point out, the overall base budget STILL increased. Just not by as much as teachers think it should. That doesn’t scream crisis.
The rally behind class sizes is an easy one. Larger classes mean less individualized attention for students, particularly in an environment with special needs students integrated in the classroom.
The unions have a really hard time with this topic, often because what they used to say was that integration was a terrible idea. That it was disruptive and bad for the other students. When I first wrote this paragraph, I was pretty damn harsh in my response. Instead, I’ll simply note that ableism is alive and well in the teachers unions and I will never accept laying their problems at the feet of the most marginalized group in the school. The parallels are too strong with teachers trying to block desegregation in the American South 70 years ago. That won’t work with me.
But let’s ignore that discriminatory element and look at the actual changes to class sizes:
Kindergarten — unchanged;
Grades 1-3 — unchanged;
Grades 4-8 — average size could go up by 1 student;
Grades 9-12 — average size could go up by 3-5 students (not yet decided).
Now, let’s be clear. Most elementary schools have their biggest cohort up to Grade 6, with many 7&8 being shipped off to high schools. Kindergarten to Grade 3 is unchanged. 50% of the school. And the other 50% could go up by one extra student per class.
Let’s look at those numbers. Most schools do NOT have overcrowding in their classrooms. They’re under the average. The distribution is extremely variable. The problem is that what drives an increase in the average are that some schools are heavily overcrowded. Why? Because there aren’t enough schools in the area, enough teachers in that school, or space in those schools. So they get bundled up and the average goes up. But guess what? That area has a problem, those types of areas, not the entire province. If the average went up by 1 student, the vast majority of schools in the province, close to 75% would be unaffected.
In fact, you could increase the average by 5 students and it wouldn’t change much in YOUR school, at least not in the short-term. Because most schools aren’t near the average. They’re running classes as low as 16 and most under 23. The board records show what many of the schools have. There are crap schools, mainly high school, where there are 40 in a class because the school board hasn’t straightened that mess out. Not the Ministry of Education, the school board. And yet elementary school teachers in your school that offers Grades K-6 are striking about something that doesn’t currently affect your school and likely never will.
Does this scream crisis to anyone?
Here’s a shocker for you. The big claim is 1000s of teachers will lose their jobs. Really? Show me somewhere that has happened. No, I’m serious. Show me the 1000s of teachers who are now on unemployment because of layoffs. You can’t. Because I know how to read EI rates by occupation and there aren’t suddenly 1000s claiming more EI. The school boards have even agreed — nobody will be laid off. All potential elimination of positions will be done through, wait for it, attrition.
This means not a single permanent teacher will be fired. It sucks for wannabe teachers as a lot of jobs they hoped would suddenly open up likely won’t. But that, too, is not a crisis with our schools.
The basis for every decision is a little thing called labour market information. What does LMI say about education? That we have an overabundance of teachers, and we’re still pumping them out the assembly line. Doesn’t matter if there aren’t any jobs or that many teachers who COULD retire are choosing not to and working into their sixties. Or going back after retirement and taking up spaces for supply teaching since they are the best-qualified with years of experience to beat out newbies trying to break in. That is not the fault of the Ministry of Education or the school board or the schools. That is bad decision-making by wannabe teachers.
However, since we’re not ACTUALLY firing teachers, let’s not pretend we are.
But wait…aren’t there cuts? No, we already answered that. Temporary funding and temporary positions are being eliminated i.e., temporary teachers hired on contract are in limbo because no one knows what might happen with the extra School Board funding for local priorities. I’ll come back to that though.
Before I leave the section though, I would like to point out that traditionally, all Governments are TERRIBLE at cutting workers. They almost always say we’ll do it through attrition, and 2-3 years later, the numbers are actually higher. It’s usually a freeze of about 2 years, for one simple reason — to STOP / SLOW growth.
Renewal of local priorities funding
There is a challenge in here, and the people claiming a problem are dead right. Local priority funding, the temporary funding designed to respond to local priorities, has not been fully renewed. Because it was temporary.
But it was being used by School Boards to pay for supposedly “extra” things like special needs, Indigenous students, student well-being, and ESL.
Yet the temporary funding was to help School Boards adapt so they could realign their internal budgets to pay for this going forward. It was NOT additional base funding. Special needs, ESL and Indigenous students have the RIGHT to their supports and School Boards weren’t providing it. To avoid the School Boards being sued for not doing what they legally have to do in some cases, the Government gave them extra funding.
How did School Boards adapt? They didn’t. They just used the new money and changed NOTHING ELSE. This is a recurring theme. The Ministry of Education doesn’t run schools, the school boards do. When there are 40 people in a school classroom? The Board decided that, not the provincial government. Multiple portables in your school yard? The School Board.
So teachers aren’t wrong that these clients are getting underserved. Absolutely true. But is it a crisis in the school? Nope. It’s a human rights issue with both the School Board and the Ministry.
We are also talking about 2% in funding. One of the reasons it isn’t being renewed is because School Boards are supposed to be realigning money to address this problem. And they’re not, they’re just taking the new money and leaving everything else as is. That wasn’t the deal. So why should the Government keep funding bad local management?
But again, that’s not a strike issue.
Violence in the classroom
One of the emerging topics with some unions is the question of “violence in the classroom”. The rationale is clear — teachers and students should be safe in the classroom. Absolutely. 100% agree.
And if that was a serious problem, everyone should jump all over it. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a red herring, and I say that for two reasons.
First and foremost, the evidence they are using is completely fabricated. A bunch of them are using stats from occupational health and safety reports in Ontario on days missed, misusing the numbers and claiming on FB and elsewhere that it is more dangerous to be a teacher than a police officer. And people are widely sharing the memes like sheep, without first stopping to ask themselves…”Wait a minute…could that possibly be true?”. No, it can’t. Schools in Ontario don’t all look like the worst inner city schools portrayed in TV and movies with security guards, gun shootings in the gym, gangs roaming the halls, and metal detectors snagging knives every five minutes. There is no educational equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie in Ontario.
But what about the numbers they cite?
Occupational health and safety figures use “days off as a result of an incident” as their metric. And when they count those figures, they group together those that are the result of an accident (like slipping on a wet floor) or a violent incident. The memes going around show the large total for educational workers (not just teachers) which includes accidents AND violence and the small total for police that only shows violence. The combined educational total is 3x the violence only total for police. However, if you use the same metric for police, it goes up to about 6-7x that of teachers. As you would expect. And most of the OHS numbers are for accidents, not violence. But the violence numbers reported are so low, it doesn’t make their case for them.
If you want to limit it to violence only, you run into a methodological problem. If a teacher has an “incident” at school, and they want to take a day off, the union basically tells them to report it as an OHS issue. Why? Because they don’t get a bunch of vacation days off like most professions. Any of us could slip and fall at work, and if we didn’t feel up to going into work, we could maybe call in sick or take a vacation day. Teachers don’t have the same flexibilities. But if they report it as OHS, they get different leave approvals. By contrast, police DO have other leave options. And they are discouraged in cop culture for taking a day off as a result of anything related to violence. So they have a massive underreporting bias by police and an overreporting bias by teachers, and yet the numbers still favour police. Not what the unions want the public to hear, so they make up memes that are completely misleading.
Secondly, how do teachers say we should respond to this issue? By hiring more special ed teachers, psychologists, behaviour therapists, counsellors, social workers, and child and youth workers. In other words, arguing that “violence in the workplace” justifies the same increases they’ve been claiming should be done for other reasons. Yet the incident rate is pretty low and doesn’t justify that level of extra money that has to come from somewhere. Equally, it is hard to reconcile punting all these kids out of classes to the other supports when they have the human right to be in the class. Although it is consistent with the claims of teachers in the American South that blacks were more violent too.
Even if I separate out my deep-rooted suspicions, I’m left with lying numbers and a vastly over-stated set of false claims of a crisis.
Serious issue? Sure. Strike ready? Nope.
Salary increase of 1%
Ah-hah! An actual labour relations issue! Finally!
The Government was elected on an austerity platform and passed legislation limiting all public servants to 1%. Is it fair? Probably not. Should they strike to get more? Sure, why not?
Will I support you to strike? Well, now therein lies a rub.
So let’s recap. We know the Government made a policy decision, and it turns out that they are only increasing a base budget by half a percent while likely eliminating some temporary funding that was previously available to School Boards. Teacher unions are claiming it will mean larger class sizes, but Grades K-3 are completely unaffected, 4-6 might go up by a student or two on average but most schools (up to 75% or more) will see no change whatsoever. No permanent teachers are being fired, but some temporary ones might not be renewed and it might be harder for new graduates to find jobs. School Boards don’t know how much of the temporary local priority funding they might get to do what they were already supposed to be doing with their base budget and have done nothing to fix while the temporary funding was in place. The teachers unions are raising violence in the classroom as a new issue to justify massive hiring of more supports while completely lying with their stats.
None of that screams “bad policy” decision that equals “a strike is the only solution”. Not even collectively. Most of those are details that could have been addressed with School Boards or through the earlier political process by electing a Government that wasn’t focused on austerity. But we did elect an austerity Government. And the only issue left on the table is salary.
Can they strike for more money? Sure.
Am I willing to support their strike mandate for all of the other issues and/or their salary rate?
I would say “stay tuned” but the title already gives it away. I cannot.