It is that time of year again? Are education worker labour strikes looming? I’m being funny, of course, as labour contracts in the education system typically run for three years. However, with the polarizing debates that tend to happen in the general public when these labour disputes occur, it can start to feel like they happen more often.
If I crudely break down the arguments for and against education workers’ labour disputes into two groups, we have the “They Already Make More Than Most People and Should Be Happy and Stop Holding Our Children Hostage” group, and then of course there is the “You Couldn’t Pay Me Enough to Teach and Supervise Other People’s Kids All Day So Give Them a Huge Raise” group. Full disclosure: I am an education worker, but I’ll admit that I have dabbled in feelings on the “suck it up and be grateful” side. I can understand why a person making $15/hour, 40+ hours per week breaking their back in a factory with no paid leave days and awful working conditions could become infuriated when those with better working conditions start complaining. After giving my head a shake, however, I realize that all progress is good progress.
Laws that govern basic fair working conditions – such as minimum wage – only came about because of people fighting the good fight historically. Ontario had its first minimum wage legislation enacted in 1920, and I would wager a pretty penny (or perhaps a pretty nickel in this economy) that there were workers in 1920 who opposed the legislation over fears that it would kill jobs. But most of us can now agree that minimum wage is critical to any labour market for many reasons, including the fact that it prevents people from being taken advantage of when they are down on their luck.
Recently, we have seen a few spikes in Ontario’s minimum wage which now sits at $15 per hour and is slated to increase to $15.50 per hour in October. These spikes reflect a simple fact: life is expensive. Many people oppose minimum wage increases, particularly large ones, because of the strain they can put on small businesses. Fears remain that minimum wage increases kill jobs, but studies suggest otherwise. And while it may seem unfair to work your way up to aw age of say,$20 per hour in a more skilled job, only to have minimum wage workers come nearer and nearer to your salary, I continue to contend that all progress is good progress. The smaller the gap between minimum wage and wages for more skilled jobs, the more pressure on employers in the latter category to raise those wages in turn. In many cases, this is the only way workers can expect to see their wages keep up with inflation.
Back to the education sector, this logic of “all progress is good progress” must apply somewhere, right? In education, there are actually two main fights that go on. One is between teachers and the Province, and the other involves negotiations between the Province and support staff, such as Educational Assistants, Early Childhood Educators, Custodians, and Office Administrators. These CUPE workers (pronounced “QP” for those in the inner circle) are the ones preparing for their fight in the coming months. They typically make between $30,000 and $40,000 yearly, compared to their teacher counterparts who can expect to earn in the ballpark of $100,000 yearly after securing a permanent position with sufficient experience. In fact, Ontario has the highest paid teachers in the world – if you want the naughty thrill of knowing another adult’s exact annual salary, visit https://www.ontario.ca/page/public-sector-salary-disclosure and search for your child’s teacher’s name. If their salary is over $100,000 yearly, it will be listed. On average, close to half of the teachers in your child’s school should be listed.
It’s safe to say that teachers have made progress in earning a good living with more favourable work conditions that in previous decades, and this progress can help CUPE workers as well. The huge gap in teacher vs. CUPE salaries can be partially explained, and partially not. Some valid reasons why teachers make more money include their longer working hours (for assignment marking, lesson preparation, etc), the specific education requirements they must meet, and the length of time it takes to find secure employment. Further to the last point, new teachers can almost certainly expect to wait over a decade for a permanent position, and life up to that point is fraught with the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will have a job year by year. A battle like that is one that not many would be willing to fight without the hope of a good living at the end.
Despite their clarity, these reasons for teachers earning more fail to account for the sheer size of the wage gap. School support staff work in high pressure, everchanging environments, for close to the same hours as teachers. Some get assaulted by students during their regular duties and have to wear Kevlar for protection. For parts of their day, sup-port staff perform the same duties as teachers, such as supervising large groups of students during lunch and recess. Furthermore, the flexibility of support staff is a key to the functioning of any school. If support staff weren’t flexible in their duties, schools would not be able to open reliably every day. With all this in mind, it may be acceptable that support staff earn less than teachers, but to earn only one third of a teacher’s salary? That seems more than a tad unreasonable. And surely, this wage gap will be used as a point during the bargaining process for CUPE’s upcoming contract renewal. Teachers’ progress with wages will therefore help their CUPE counterparts, and alas, true to the model, all progress is good progress.