Forced Transfer and the MTA Hunger Games

By Jim Wilson

A recent book and movie blockbuster is the “The Hunger Games”. Its theme was that a few individuals of the lower orders could be sacrificed in order to satisfy the whims of the ruling class. Maybe the Montreal Teachers Association [MTA] has been influenced by this idea.

This notion of sacrificing the few can be found in the recently signed agreement between the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] and the MTA. Unfortunately the new development seems to have flown under the rank and file teachers’ radar. This new clause, ‘offered’ by the EMSB, and accepted by the MTA, is that  a teacher can be compulsorily transferred to another school “at the discretion of the board”.  This transfer would supposedly “replace a serious disciplinary measure”; hitherto, disciplinary issues were issued through formal actions, such as letters of warning, reprimand or suspensions. If the matter were serious, why not handle it formally, and allow due process to proceed? If there is a problem in one school, why is a move to another the solution? Is it a way of sweeping a problem under the rug?

For those familiar with union/board relations south of the border, these developments should be ringing an alarm for teachers. In a recent case in Washington D.C., an experienced and respected teacher encountered some inappropriate school practices and revealed that ineligible students were being given diplomas. He sinned again by producing anti-cheating material by having the same test rearranged on different pages, but this produced a complaint from the administrator that the teacher was creating an “expectation that the students would cheat”. The teacher found himself ‘involuntarily transferred’ to another school on the other side of town, due to ‘educational philosophical differences’

There is a nagging suspicious that this new agreement provides the board with a tool to intimidate any teachers, who, like their American colleague, would consider  voicing  genuine concerns about the operation of a school, or, for that matter, the board itself. Normally, a disciplinary action  produces a grievance, left to be settled by an arbitrator, but in the EMSB/MTA agreement, the compulsory transfer replaces disciplinary action. How can the union dispute the right for board to act in this arbitrary manner? The union agreed to it.  Given the size of the board, a teacher’s travel obligations and costs could be seriously affected by a transfer to a new school. Compulsory transfers are, ostensibly, punishments, which do little for the teacher, the new staff or the students.

There is often the underlying feeling that an individual must ‘deserve’ it. However, let’s assume a teacher gives students low marks, which in the teacher’s professional opinion, were justified. Suppose the teacher is told to boost the grade; after all we want the school to have a high marks, don’t we? Would a refusal to do so be considered as insubordination? No doubt the board would be reluctant to impose a disciplinary measure in this kind of case. Why risk arbitration, and probably lose? Just transfer the “offender”, with the knowledge the compliant union stays silent. Teachers will soon understand the system. Do not complain that the special needs kids are not receiving the right services, or that there are inequitable workloads, or that nepotism is rife, or that there is an administrative problem.  If you do, a new school beckons.   There would soon be little need for many compulsory transfers; a few examples should provide a sufficiently cautionary note to deter any potential whistleblower.

That Boards want this power is understandable; with their hidden agendas and fear of adverse publicity.  But why would a union succumb so easily to such a measure? Permitting even one individual to be placed in that situation seems antithetical for a union movement, when so often it exhorts its members with cries of solidarity. Were the MTA members consulted prior to this  offer being accepted? Did the union leadership ever attempt to rally its members to protest? Was the deal just an example of a cozy relationship between board and union? Certainly, there must have been a ratification vote, but those turnouts are a mere fraction of the total membership. Unfortunately, unless it is a strike vote, union meetings are sparsely attended.  Furthermore, many teachers have a sense of resignation, when, as in this case, the leaders endorse a measure, it is done deal.

Is it not bad enough that Quebec teachers are the lowest paid in the country that we now have a docile union acquiescing to a board on teachers’ job security? Is this ‘Made in the USA’ practice, now entrenched in the EMSB/MTA  contract,  going to be the signal for the other English boards to demand the same powers in dealing with their teachers? Unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle; Quebec’s teachers in other local unions may well live to regret what the MTA has done to them.

Jim Wilson is the former President of the Pearson Teachers Union

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