By Robert Green
Next week members of the MTA will be asked to vote on an amendment to the union’s constitution that will result in the electoral terms of MTA executive members being extended from one year to two years.
Ostensibly this is being proposed by MTA President Peter Sutherland as a cost-saving measure for the union. While this measure, if approved, will certainly lead to the union saving on the cost of annual elections, there are several questions MTA members should be asking themselves before deciding how to vote.
The first question is why now? We are currently in negotiations for a new contract. Is this the time to come forward with a referendum that will potentially divide the membership? At this time when the stakes are so high for teachers and the future of education in Quebec, is this not the time that Mr Sutherland should be focusing on enhancing the collective power of MTA members? In proposing this referendum he seems to be focusing instead on enhancing his own power as MTA president. Even if one believes that this proposal is valid as a cost-saving measure, what would be the harm in waiting until after negotiations are complete in order to have this debate?
While it is undeniable that if approved by the members this proposal will save the union money, it is also undeniable that this proposal will reduce the degree of democratic accountability for our union leadership. Crucially it will mean that Mr Sutherland will not have to face the possibility of an election in the year following these negotiations. Thus far the MTA’s leadership has provided little vision as to how teachers can actually succeed in these negotiations and avoid repeating the debacle of 2005 when we were decreed back-to-work. By proposing this referendum now, instead of after the negotiations our current leadership will enjoy the benefit of not having to face the possibility of being held accountable for what transpires in these negotiations for almost two years.
Related to the issue of regular democratic accountability, is the issue of raising the MTA’s fees. Given our declining membership the MTA is in a financial crunch. Either we will have to make deep cuts to spending or we will have to increase the fees that teachers pay. The small savings that would occur if this referendum passes will not change this fact. Mr Sutherland knows very well that this is the case. He also knows very well that a referendum to increase fees will not be popular with the membership, particularly in the absence of any sacrifices being made by the union president with respect to his $92k+ salary.
To stand for election the same year that one is proposing to raise fees is not an attractive proposition for anyone. Indeed the last time the MTA leadership attempted to raise fees was six years ago, before the president’s post was being regularly contested in election. Since this time no MTA president has dared to raise fees, instead choosing to eat into the union’s accumulated surplus. In other words the possibility for annual elections served as a real disincentive for our union leadership to propose fee increases. MTA members should be asking themselves if eliminating the possibility for annual elections will not be making it easier or more tempting for our union leadership to propose raising fees.
The stakes have never been higher for Quebec’s teachers. Nearly every aspect of our working conditions are currently under attack by government. If MTA members want to send a message that Mr Sutherland should be focusing on enhancing our collective power rather than his own personal power as MTA president, they should vote no in this week’s referendum.