Keeping the Members in the Dark: On the MTA’s Growing Culture of Secrecy

By Robert Green,

Over the last several years a growing number of Canadians have been expressing concern about what has been deemed as the Harper government’s “war on science”. By de-funding or dismantling such things as the long-form census and the federal government’s experimental lakes area, the Harper government is effectively ensuring that information that might cause citizens to question its political agenda never sees the light of day. This tendency of those in power to attempt to sunshine2hide information that might reflect poorly on them is the very reason why constitutional guarantees of government transparency are so highly valued in democratic societies.

Members of the Montreal Teachers Association might be surprised to learn that a similar tendency towards growing secrecy has been developing within their own union.

Recently it has come to light that the MTA was in April 2012 found to have acted in gross negligence by Quebec’s Labour Relations Commission in its representation of two MTA members that sought to grieve the fact that they had been denied  contracts that were subsequently given to teachers without proper qualifications. Though the grievance had been filed, it was rejected not because the case lacked merit but rather because the MTA had not filed the grievance within the 4 month limit prescribed by the collective agreement. In its ruling on the complaint against the MTA the Labour Relations Commission stated “in the present case, the Commission considers that failure of the Association to file the complaint within the time specified in the collective agreement, combined with the consequences of it on the plaintiffs, constitutes gross negligence.” The Commission ordered the MTA to pay all of the legal expenses incurred by these 2 teachers.

While members of the MTA should be concerned that their union’s leadership has been found by an independent body to have been grossly negligent in its representation of 2 MTA members, of greater concern is the fact that this was never reported to the membership!  Despite the fact that the ruling involved a financial award that will ultimately be paid by the members, the current leadership of the MTA apparently did not feel that this was relevent information for the members to know.

However, when it suits their political purposes the MTA’s executive committee has been quite forthcoming regarding matters involving the Labour Relations Commission. Earlier this year it was more than happy to report that a complaint against it stemming from last year’s election had been dropped. News that could potentially reflect well on the current leadership is reported to the members, while news that reflects poorly is not. Such behaviour is not at all out of character for Ms Rosenfield who in 2011 openly admitted that she personally edits the union’s minutes before they are submitted for approval.

Another example of the MTA’s growing culture of secrecy is the executive committee’s recent refusal of a member’s request to scrutinize the statements of the union’s visa account. This refusal was made in violation of the MTA’s constitution which unambiguously states that it is the duty of the Treasurer “at all reasonable times to exhibit the books and accounts to any member of the Association”. It also marked a significant shift in the leadership’s own behaviour. As recently as 2 years ago MTA Treasurer Lydia Landori frequently stated that any member was welcome to scrutinize the MTA’s finances at any time. The fact that the MTA’s current treasurer is now saying the opposite should be of concern to every MTA member.

When asked to justify this new move away from financial transparency, the answers of current President Ruth Rosenfield and presidential hopeful Peter Sutherland were extremely illuminating. Both suggested that the request for information was being denied because such information might be misrepresented in an upcoming election campaign. Apparently the members of the MTA are not themselves capable of judging the validity of information. Therefore to ensure that information is not used to manipulate the poor naive members, the right to access that information is taken away.  The paternalistic and undemocratic nature of this logic would make even Stephen Harper blush.

Not only does the current MTA leadership oppose transparency within the union, it has also actively opposed efforts to make the school board’s recall/seniority process more transparent. At the November 2011 meeting of the MTA Reps Assembly where demands for the local negotiations with the school board were being discussed, a motion was presented by the teachers of Lauren Hill Academy. The aim of this motion was simple: to demand that the school board be obliged to account for the large number of positions Principals seems to “discover” every year over the summer. By obliging the school board to provide written justification for each such position it was hoped that this measure would add more transparency to the process and make it more difficult for Principals hold posts back from the original vacancy lists published in the spring.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the motion’s only possible effect was greater transparency for the school board, Ms Rosenfield opposed it. The only rationale she offered was that the school board might think we were accusing them of something. Although not a single other intervention was made in opposition to the motion, it was defeated nonetheless. It would be interesting to know if MTA Presidential hopeful Peter Sutherland also feels that the delicate sensitivities of the employer are of greater concern than the needs of the membership to have a seniority and recall process that is fair, transparent and impervious to undue manipulation by the employer.

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