Who speaks for student-needs in labour negotiations?

How to decide who is looking after the interests of students

Based on news coverage during a school-related labour dispute it is very hard to tell who is most committed to promoting student achievement and well-being.  Union leaders, school boards, and governments all claim that their positions are meant to help students and that the other sides’ positions will hurt students.

One way to decide whose proposals are best for students is to study the proposals and analyze the effect that the competing proposals will have on students.  The 2014 negotiations in Ontario provides an example of how the parties position themselves publicly and to their stakeholders. (The major non-money issues that were at stake are outlined on the Detailed Issues Summary” page.)

It is also useful to look at the priorities that each group has set for themselves before going into these negotiations.  Here are the overall 2014/2015 priorities set by the three main players in the Ontario 2014 Public School negotiations.


The conflicting priorities of union leaders, school boards, & classroom teachers

Neither the leaders of the Elementary Teachers union (ETFO) nor the leaders of the Secondary Teachers union (OSSTF) thought enough of students to even mention them in their 2014/15 priorities.

It is likely that union leaders are on a completely different page than classroom teachers. Most teachers care deeply about the children in their classes.  They put a tremendous amount of effort, time, and thought into helping the children in their care grow into capable, caring, curious, and resilient adults.  Union priorities are probably of little interest to those teachers focussed on their students’ well-being and achievement who might be surprised to find that students are never mentioned.  The priorities of classroom teachers might very well be closer to those set out by School Boards rather than those set by the union leaders who represent them.

The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) is the group that is negotiating with the unions and the Province about major issues relating to Ontario’s Public schools and students.  OPSBA’s priorities were set by a board of directors made up of Trustees from every Public School Board.  As you’ll see below, every one of OPSBA’s priorities is directed at supporting students.


ETFO’s, OSSTF’s, and OPSBA’s 2014 priorities in their own words  [Comments added in italics].

The 9 Priorities set by ETFO’s leaders

(The below priorities were taken from ETFO’s 2014/2015 Resource Book, which is no longer available on the web. The above link is to ETFO’s 10 priorities for 2018/2019 which include all 9 of the 2014/2015 priorities plus a 10th To promote the economic and labour rights of all workers”)  

  • To protect the collective bargaining rights of all members
  • To defend publicly-funded public education
  • To serve the needs of the membership
  • To provide for the professional development of members
  • To promote social justice in the areas of peace, anti-poverty, non-violence, and equity
  • To support international assistance and co-operation
  • To promote the care and protection of the environment  
  • To actively engage members in the Federation
  • To promote and protect the health and safety of members

That ETFO’s leaders focus on their members is natural; that is the primary job and the legal obligation of any union.  Six of the 9 ETFO priorities address member benefits.  Protecting students, promoting equity for students, and supporting co-operation between all members of every school community are of daily pre-occupation of the vast majority of ETFO members.  And yet ETFO leadership has consistently displaced student-based priorities in favour of the admittedly laudable goals of protecting the environment, promoting societal anti-poverty, and supporting international co-operation.  Replacing these general goals with ones centered on student well-being and achievement would have a major impact on the negotiating positions taken by ETFO.


The 5 priorities set by OSSTF’s leaders [each of OSSTF’s priorities are several sentences long, These are a list of the section headings]

  • Negotiations (“reaching a fair deal for all members”)
  • Promoting Local Labour History
  • “My Union” and Member Engagement
  • The Environment
  • OSSTF’s 100th Anniversary

[What would have been the effect on OSSTF’s negotiating positions if “Promoting Local Labour History” had been secondary to “Promoting student mastery of world history, music, the maths, athletics, reading, citizenship, writing, self-regulation, and french”.  Or if “Student engagement” had been declared to be as important as “Member engagement”.  Or if “Reaching a fair deal for all members” had been replaced with “Reaching a deal that fairly balances the needs of our members with the needs of the students that they serve”.  It is most telling that three out of OSSTF’s five priorities dealt with inward-looking union politics that had noting to do with students or schools: “labour history”, “member engagement”, and “OSSTF’s anniversary”.]  


The 5 priorities set by Ontario Trustees through OPSBA [see pages 7 through 12 – the details of each of these priorities take up most of a page. Below are the section headings along with a small part of the associated text]

  • Labour Relations … “teachers and education workers deeply influence a positive and productive learning environment for students”
  • The Whole Child and Student Well-Being … “ensuring that we work collaboratively for the social, emotional, mental and physical well-being of all children and youth”
  • New Generation Education … “preparing students for success in the 21st century”
  • Trustees – Building Leadership Capacity … “trustees make a significant and direct contribution to the achievement of all students”
  • Education Funding … “setting the conditions that promote and sustain student achievement”

[“Promoting student achievement and well-being” is the primary duty of Trustees and School Boards as set out in Ontario’s Education Act.  Every one of OPSBA’s 5 priorities arises directly out of this duty.  Parents strive to raise children who achieve “social, emotional, mental and physical well-being” and who are prepared for “success in the 21st century”.  As citizens we want our schools to provide “a positive and productive learning environment for students” and that all funding is used to set “the conditions that promote and sustain student achievement”.  Even the somewhat inward-looking priority of “building leadership capacity” is made in the context that Trustees make “a significant and direct contribution to the achievement of students” and that the purpose of having better Trustees is to have better schools.]


StudentFocus +/-

It helps to have a statistic to focus on something complex.  It is very easy to become confused by the many statements made by the groups bargaining about the educational future of our children.  A simple statistic like StudentFocus+/- might help see how much a group really cares about student well-being and achievement.

StudentFocus +/- is easy to calculate.  First, throw away all of the platitudes to the media, and focus on the information that the group puts in writing to its members.  Then categorize each stated pre-negotiation priority as either “StudentFocus” or “OtherFocus”, and subtract one from the other; sort of like the “Goals +/-” in hockey.

It is really easy to calculate “StudentFocus +/-” for each of the three groups around the public school teacher negotiating table in Ontario in 2014.

  • ETFO SF+/-   = -9  (elementary school teachers, 0 student-focus, 9 other-focus)
  • OSSTF SF+/- = -5  (secondary school teachers, 0 student-focus, 5 other-focus)
  • OPSBA SF+/- = +4 (school boards, 4.5 student-focus, 0.5 other-focus)