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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath : Hands with Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Horwath called it a “historic endorsement.”

May 14th, 2018 | by Richard Paul
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath  : Hands with Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Horwath called it a “historic endorsement.”
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Kelly McParland: The NDP thinks they bought off the teachers, but the teachers don’t stay bought

Should Andrea Horwath become premier, she will be expected to repay their kindness … and repay and repay and repay

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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath shakes hands with Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond in Toronto on May 10, 2018.Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press

Just a day or so into the Ontario election, New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath appeared at a lectern with a new friend, teachers’ union president Sam Hammond. They grasped hands. They pledged fealty. Horwath called it a “historic endorsement.”

Maybe. You could also view it as a risky venture, the kind that proves costly in the end. Ontario’s teachers unions have a way of being best pals with politicians as long as those politicians continue to play ball to the unions’ liking. Hammond — head of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario — was delivering his union’s endorsement to Horwath because he’d soured on Kathleen Wynne and her Liberals, even though education unions have poured millions into electing and re-electing Wynne’s party over the past 15 years.

His reasoning? “It’s clear that Ontarians believe it’s time for change after 15 years of Liberal government,” Hammond said, accepting no responsibility for having kept the government in place over that period. Wynne did her best to appear sanguine. “Individual teachers make their decisions on a riding-by-riding basis,” she said, suggesting some teachers might choose to vote Liberal anyway. Could be, though the unions’ power comes largely from their organizing skill and ability to deliver their membership in large blocs.

Horwath’s description of the deal as “historic” was accurate in one sense: it sets aside 25 years of distrust since the teachers last supported her party. Unions and the NDP once seemed natural allies, but lost that loving feeling in the midst of Bob Rae’s one tumultuous term as NDP premier. Caught between a severe downturn and a hefty deficit, Rae sought to preserve cash by forcing unpaid holidays on public servants. Union bosses have long memories.

Not that Rae was alone. In the past quarter century, the teachers have fought with each and every government, Conservative, Liberal, NDP or otherwise, accusing each in turn of failing to adequately support their devotion to public education.

EDS NOTE AN AUG., 1990  FILE PHOTO Ontario Premier David Peterson (right), NDP Leader Bob Rae and Conservative Leader Mike Harris (left) stand together prior to a leaders debate in Toronto in this August, 1990 file photo. The shifting tides of Alberta politics have left many pundits surveying a changed landscape, but they've also led former Ontario premier Peterson on a stroll down memory lane.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk

EDS NOTE AN AUG., 1990 FILE PHOTO Ontario Premier David Peterson (right), NDP Leader Bob Rae and Conservative Leader Mike Harris (left) stand together prior to a leaders debate in Toronto in this August, 1990 file photo. The shifting tides of Alberta politics have left many pundits surveying a changed landscape, but they’ve also led former Ontario premier Peterson on a stroll down memory lane.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk

Rae was followed by the Progressive Conservative’s Mike Harris, a period so traumatic that both other parties still regularly blame it for all that has followed. In pushing through Bill 160, a much-reviled reform package, Harris sparked the biggest teacher walkout in North American history, closing every school in the province. The two-week strike failed to halt the bill, but engendered a hostility so all-encompassing protest leaders still get together every decade or so to recall the horrors they endured and vilify Harris anew. Last year they even issued a “commemorative booklet” on the anniversary of their ordeal.

Harris gave way to Dalton McGuinty, who styled himself the “education premier” and spent a bundle introducing all-day kindergarten and a cap on class sizes, but eventually found the same placard-wielding hordes massing on the legislature lawn, denouncing him and all his ways after Liberals pushed through a wage freeze and anti-strike bill in order — shades of Rae — to try and get a handle on ballooning expenses.

Since she occupied McGuinty’s office, Wynne has made a point of placating the labour bosses. When new negotiating methods proved time-consuming, Education Minister Liz Sandals quietly handed over $2.5 million to help pay the costs of pizza and other essentials, without requiring receipts or any explanation of how it was spent. Rather than risk unhelpful protests in the run-up to the Liberals’ re-election bid this year, the premier unilaterally offered generous two-year contract extensions to ensure “labour peace.” Her reward was to see Hammond making nice with Horwath while the province’s two biggest teachers groups accused her of “duplicity,” “coercion” and “reprisals” while filing a complaint with the Labour Relations Board. Hammond was particularly incensed that Wynne’s Liberals paid millions to teachers who hadn’t joined him in a lengthy court battle over Charter rights.

Hammond’s relations with Wynne have been particularly testy, so his defection may not set off a wholesale shift in support among Catholic, French and secondary school educators. But Horwath needs to understand that all alliances with teachers’ bosses are conditional, and all the conditions are on her, not them. Should she become premier, she will be expected to repay their kindness … and repay and repay and repay. The announcement of ETFO’s support came with a prepared list of promises already made: $16 billion for “crumbling” schools; a moratorium on school closures; more hiring for teachers, educational assistants and “education professionals;” a new funding formula and an end to bothersome testing the union dislikes.

It’s a pricy list, but if Horwath thinks that’s the end of the giving, she’s still in the early stages of learning. When Ontario teachers unions profess their devotion to quality education, what they mean is a dedication to generous contracts and compliant governments. The students are just leverage.

National Post
Twitter.com/kellymcparland

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