By Robert Green
Members of the local unions belonging to the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) should have recently received an email with a survey from QPAT about the upcoming round of negotiations. While it is commendable that QPAT is attempting to gauge the willingness of its membership to mobilize, the scope of this survey is extremely limited. It does not address any of the serious problems with the last two rounds of negotiations nor does it offer any real options beyond the status quo …a status quo where the salaries of Quebec teachers are amongst the lowest in Canada and where working conditions are so bad that burn-out rates are soaring and teaching in Quebec is increasingly being referred to as a “precarious profession”.
To address the limited scope of QPAT’s survey, here is an alternative survey that will allow members of QPAT affiliated unions to express themselves on important matters regarding the upcoming negotiations not addressed by QPAT’s survey.
Question 1 – Is it important for QPAT to educate its members on an ongoing basis about the issues that affect them?
Background: If QPAT wants us to believe it is serious about mobilizing its members for real change it might consider using the considerable resources at its disposal to keep its members informed about the issues affecting them and the importance of syndical activism. Other teachers federations in Quebec such as The Federation autonomme de l’enseignment (FAE) do a far better job of using their website and newsletter to do just that. In at least one case, Bill 88 (the Bill that mandated schools and school boards to sign performance contracts), QPAT used its newsletter liaison to keep its members uninformed by downplaying the bill’s significance for teachers. QPAT’s recent convention was also an opportunity missed. While several workshops were offered on how to cope with stress, not a single workshop was offered on the conditions causing teacher stress and how we can collectively address these.
Question 2 – Is it acceptable for QPAT’s leadership to withhold and manipulate information so that the members vote a particular way?
Background: To argue that teachers were adequately informed about the provisions of the current collective agreement at the time that they voted on it would be a stretch to say the least. QPAT neglected to inform members altogether about the minuted system of absences and provided information that was either vague or misleading on a number of other issues.
Question 3 – Is it acceptable for QPAT’s leadership to propose approving this agreement in two parts, as they did last time?
Background: In the vote to approve the current collective agreement QPAT proposed a new and unusual process: teachers would first vote on the part of the collective agreement involving working conditions (the more favourable part of the agreement involving class size reductions) and then have a separate vote at a subsequent meeting to approve the part of the collective agreement involving salary (the less favourable part of the agreement involving a base line increase plus an opaque formula for additional increases which combined will likely fail to protect the real salaries of teachers from erosion by inflation). This two-step process favoured the government and was a way of leading the members to approve the agreement. After all, how could the members vote no on salary after having already voted yes on working conditions? Should the members not have the opportunity to assess the agreement as a whole and make up their own minds if the good outweighs the bad?
Question 4 – Should QPAT’s leadership be prepared to make personal sacrifices in order to advance the interests of QPAT members?
Background: The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is perhaps the only teachers union in North America in the last decade to not only stop an attack against its members, but against all odds, even make significant gains. In describing the steps taken by the union that lead to this historic victory, CTU president Karen Lewis stated:
…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 question for QPAT members is should we expect the same from our own union leadership. How much money could be freed up for educating and organizing teachers if all those working on the payroll of teachers unions had their compensation reduced to the measly rate of Quebec’s highest paid teachers? Though this would undoubtedly be seen as cruel and unusual punishment by a certain QPAT executive director – no more six figures; no more paid RRSP; no more paid health and dental; only the lowly salary of a veteran teacher and your pension to survive on – it would free up significant resources that could be used to advance the interests of teachers, as was done in Chicago.
Question 5 – Should union leaders be capable of articulating a vision of how change is possible?
Background: The position Quebec’s teachers presently find themselves in is a dismal one. Two rounds ago we went on strike and after the government had saved a sufficient amount of money from not paying us, we were legislated back to work with an imposed contract. Last round, work action was limited to T-shirts and extended recesses before we agreed to the contract the government proposed. The willingness of governments to use back-to-work legislation means that unions have to start thinking outside the box. Perhaps the answer is creative work-to-rule campaigns; perhaps it’s greater outreach to parents; regardless, QPAT’s current leadership has thus far failed to provide any vision as to how we may overcome the impasse of back-to-work legislation. Demonstrating some leadership on this difficult question might be an important first step towards convincing the membership that mobilization can actually work.
Please share this survey with as many QPAT members as you can!