QPAT Convention 2013: Coping Strategies When What Teachers Need is Change

Should conventions held by teachers unions include workshops aimed at politicizing and empowering its membership or should they merely offer tips and techniques to use in the classroom? How one answers this question reveals a great deal about how one sees the nature of teachers unions themselves.

Following a historic victory of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last year, union President Karen Lewis explained this victory as the product of a change in union leadership that brought with it a change in the philosophy of how the union should be run. She described this philosophical shift as moving from a “service model” to an “organizing model”. This involved making structural changes to the union itself so that it could be more effective at educating and empowering members:

…we purposely tried to change the culture of union so that the union is about education, is about empowering teachers … And as a result, the union officers took pay cuts, significant pay cuts, so that we can have an organizing department, so that we can have a research department, so that we didn’t do the union the way the old union was done, because those days are over…

The unity achieved by the CTU educating and empowering its grassroots members transformed the CTU from an organization incapable of fending off the various attacks against the working conditions of its members into a fighting organization capable of not only defending their members but actually making gains on their behalf.

While paying lip service to the historic victory of Chicago teachers in a recent issue of QPAT’s newsletter Liaison, QPAT itself could not be further from the organizing model that was responsible for this victory: their democratic structures could not be more opaque or inaccessible to the grassroots members; their approach to negotiation seems more intent on telling members what to think and how to vote than on empowering members and encouraging real debate; they see no problem paying their president and certain members of their permanent staff salaries and perks that far exceed those received by the highest paid teachers. 

The QPAT leadership’s preference for the service model over the organizing model is also clearly illustrated by the selection of workshops being offered at this year’s QPAT convention. There is not a single workshop dealing with the increasingly difficult working conditions faced by Quebec’s public school teachers: nothing about systemic underfunding; nothing about the lack of support for the growing number of special needs students; nothing about the extraordinarily high burn-out rate of teachers; nothing about the deteriorating health and safety conditions in our schools; nothing about the major problems with the curriculum that have still not been resolved; nothing about the Management and Educational Success Agreements that are causing enormous pressures to inflate grades; nothing about the impacts poverty and growing inequality have on our classrooms.

Similarly the QPAT convention is entirely void of workshops aimed at empowering teachers to affect change: nothing about QPAT’s democratic functioning and how teachers can participate; nothing about the importance of labour unions and syndical involvement; nothing about how to file a grievance; nothing aimed at helping teachers understand the legal and policy framework in which they work; nothing about the historic victory of Chicago teachers, the growing US movement against standardized testing or the courageous struggles of teachers in Mexico City.

This is not to say that the workshops that are offered are without value. We all enjoy a well planned workshop involving new tips or technologies for the classroom and there certainly seems to be plenty of those offered. However, the absence of workshops aimed at educating and empowering union members politically raises serious questions about QPAT’s current leadership. Quebec’s teachers have some of the worst working conditions and lowest pay in Canada. What will more tips for the classroom ever do to change this? Does QPAT’s current leadership even see the need to mobilize for change?

mmoore_EaseUpaltEven more telling is the fact that while there are no workshops dealing with the sources of teacher stress, there are eight different workshops offering instruction in meditation or other stress management techniques. The question this raises for QPAT members is, do we want a union that will merely help us cope with the growing stress we face? Or is it time we follow the teachers of Chicago in reforming our union to become an active political force capable of addressing the root causes of our stress?

Teachers hoping to see QPAT reformed in this way need to realize that it won’t happen on its own. Though QPAT’s democratic structures are opaque and inaccessible, the local unions that make up QPAT do have the power to initiate such reforms. By discussing these issues with our colleagues and raising them within our local unions we can begin the process of transforming QPAT into an organization that can actually fight and win!


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