Editorial: Ferocity of a kindergarten teacher

September 11, 2012
Jonathan Teghtmeyer

Liz Wingert fits the stereotypical image of a kindergarten teacher. She is young, enthusiastic, polite and petite. She sports stylish eye glasses and blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail. She is intelligent and caring.

It is her ferocity that might seem opposite to the image of a kindergarten teacher. It is her conviction that makes some people want to paint her image as that of a union thug.

Wingert is the secretary of Madison Teachers Inc. (the union represents teachers in Madison schools), and for one month last winter, she, along with her teacher colleagues and other public employees, stood in solidarity at the Wisconsin state legislature to protest Governor Scott Walker’s so-called budget repair bill.

In August, Wingert spoke to ATA Summer Conference delegates about Walker’s attack on teachers and public workers. The Wisconsin government introduced a bill portrayed as cutting costs to balance the state budget, but the bill was actually an attack on workers’ rights. The legislation would rip up existing collective agreements, eliminate fairly bargained employment conditions and impose new legislated terms. The right to bargain collectively would be outlawed for some workers, and the ability to act collectively would be hampered for the rest. In some cases, unions would have to take annual certification votes.

Walker’s legislation was an ideologically driven, authoritarian attack on workers’ rights done in the name of repairing the economy. For Walker, public workers are a political foe best defeated by impairing their ability to organize and act collectively. And while we’d like to believe that such a heinous attack on worker rights is reserved for Tea Party types south of the border, the forces are at work here, too. One law currently proposed in Ottawa is a similar ideologically driven and authoritarian attack on workers’ rights done in the name of “transparency.” But, again, the actual motive is to impair workers acting collectively.

British Columbia Conservative MP Russ Hiebert has put forward private member’s Bill C-377, which would require labour organizations to provide detailed financial statements for public distribution. While most private members’ bills are doomed to fail, this particular bill has the support of the Conservative majority caucus and could pass easily this fall.

By placing the bill’s reporting requirements in the Income Tax Act, the bill attempts to skirt the constitutional issue of provincial domain over labour relations. Hiebert’s website (www.c377.ca) suggests that the public tax benefit received by unions compels public disclosure. The logic is spurious. Unions are obligated to report to their funders—members—not to the general public. If this bill is solely about tax deductions, then the reporting requirements should be no more onerous than they are for ­government, charities or private corporations (who take advantage of deductions on a wide array of business expenses).

In terms of financial transparency, the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s line-by-line budget is provided to, and approved by, locally appointed teacher delegates at our annual assembly. Our audited financial statements are posted to our website for our members and tabled in the Alberta legislature. Despite these current obligations, the additional reporting demanded by Bill C-377 alone would likely require the hiring of two ­additional full-time accounting staff at Barnett House.

Bill C-377 is intended to divert time, money and energy from labour’s effective representation of its members. At the same time, the bill will produce a website outlining line-by-line union activities, costs and vendors. Such information will play nicely into the hands of anti-labour groups such as Alberta’s Merit Contractors and B.C.’s Fraser Institute, who will distort the data to discredit unions. Employers will have a heyday with access to confidential and strategic information about union expenses.

The bill is a politically motivated attack on the association rights of workers. It attacks workers’ organizational abilities through costly ­distractions, preoccupations and mischief making. It may not stoop to the same level as Wisconsin’s budget repair bill, but teachers (including kindergarten teachers) would be wise to pay attention.

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