Dark clouds are gathering

February 12, 2013
Jonathan Teghtmeyer

Monday, February 4, started off well enough. Edmonton had been granted a reprieve from frigid temperatures, and the week was kicking off unseasonably warm and sunny. I arrived early for my meeting downtown and walked to a coffee shop for a latte. As the barista frothed the milk, I reached over a stack of newspapers for a packet of sugar, and a headline caught my eye: “Legislated teacher deal finds support.”

The week suddenly looked a little less sunny.

Then, by late Wednesday afternoon, February 6, Education Minister Jeff Johnson had sent an e-mail to about 34,000 ATA members, extolling the benefits of more direct communication between him and teachers. Teachers were surprised and upset by the communication—they had not supplied their e-mail addresses to the minister nor had they agreed to be added to a spam e-mail distribution list. The list apparently originated from the office of the registrar for teacher certification. The ATA is considering a formal response to the content and distribution of this particular message.

The subtext of the e-mail message is that the education minister does not believe that the Association speaks for teachers, and thus he needs to communicate directly with them. The tactic of separating individual members from the collective organization is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, typical of anyone attacking a group.

Teachers might wonder, where is this attack coming from? To answer, we must take a broader look. Around the world, dark clouds are gathering. Public education is threatened by the global education reform movement (GERM), which promotes increased competition, school choice and “accountability” through school rankings and invasive standardized testing. GERM is a collection of bad ideas that stem from the flawed belief that treating education like a marketplace will improve outcomes for students. For example, merit pay is an ailment caused by GERM.

Economic uncertainty hangs over much of the world, and the neoliberal advocates pushing market reform use government budgetary problems as an opportunity to promote their agenda. For example, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker used financial turmoil in 2011 to strip the working conditions and stomp on the collective rights of teachers and other public sector workers. And recently, belt-tightening governments in British Columbia and Ontario suggested that teachers were the cause of their financial woes. This overplayed tune always blames public sector workers for the poor financial positions of governments. The characterization of teachers as being overpaid and having better-than-average benefits and pensions to boot attracts anti-teacher forces that are only too happy to demand punitive measures (imposed settlements, wage freezes, longer hours of work and reduced benefits and pensions).

In Ontario, legislation to impose settlements on teachers resulted in rotating strikes and withdrawal of voluntary services. Everyone lost—teachers, students, parents, the government and then-premier Dalton McGuinty (who ultimately stepped down as premier).

In Alberta, clouds are gathering on the horizon, so expect turbulence. Premier Redford identified teacher and doctor salaries as unsustainable and a strain on the government’s pocketbook. Her education minister’s comments about merit pay, the potential use of legislation rather than negotiation, and Minister Johnson’s interference in bargaining are eroding the relationship between the government and the province’s teachers.

Teachers must be wary of the government using scare tactics to drive public sentiment against public employees. If we let down our guard, wedges could be driven through the collective, separating members from their organization and from each other. What could follow are legislated settlements, not bargained ones.

Clouds often bring bad weather; we must prepare for the storm. ­Successfully repelling the elements will involve the following: ­teachers must clearly and vociferously promote and stand up for the value of public education and point out again and again that the strength of our public service is the people who provide it. Teachers must reject attempts to be divided and affirm the value and power of solidarity. Teachers must take a stand and fight for their rights.

Get out your umbrella and raincoat, people—it’s going to be a stormy spring.

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.