Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Leaders and The Led

The year was 1997. There were five of us left on the bus, returning from a protest against Bill 160, education legislation that teachers opposed for a variety of reasons. Present were the local OSSTF president, the treasurer, and the vice-president, me, and a fellow teacher. The president turned and said, “Do you guys want to go for a beer?” There was only one thing wrong with the invitation – it was made to the executive, but not to we remaining two teachers, even though I knew the executive well.

That same year, a member from the provincial executive addressed about 500 teachers at a meeting convened at my school, to determine the next step in our escalating protest against the Mike Harris government’s assault on education in Ontario. The possibilities ranged from a strike to a mass resignation. When the time came for questions and comments from the attendees, I went to the microphone and said the following:

“I’ll do anything you folks want. If you tell us to strike, I will. If you tell us to submit our resignations, I will. But the problem is, you people ignore us until you need us. Then you are here holding meetings, rallies, etc. The provincial executive has to cultivate the membership much more effectively than they have been.”

To illustrate my point about provincial aloofness, I relayed how at one time I could go to the Federation website to obtain the email addresses of everyone, from the President on down, in order to send them my thoughts. I told them that now, all one could get was a general email address, feedback@osstf.on.ca. The response of the guest was that he would make sure the problem was rectified as soon as he got back to Toronto. Ten years later, I am still awaiting that rectification.

Again in 1997, I had occasion to speak to Earl Manners, at the time President of the Federation, when he was in town for a function. I asked him how OSSTF planned to harness and channel the deep anger teachers felt over the ill-advised actions of the provincial government. He told me they were planning to put up a series of billboard ads. I guess he didn’t understand the true nature of my question.

Occasionally, a member of the local executive would join us for a beer after school on Fridays. All was well and convivial until a member of the provincial executive would come in. It was invariably at this point that the local executive member would leave our table and go off to another table with his provincial counterpart for a ‘private consultation.’ Not only was this bad manners, it was also bad politics.

What does each of the above situations demonstrate? First and foremost, they amply show the chasm that exists between the leaders and the led,” the washed” and “the great unwashed.” In my view, it is this gulf that will ultimately threaten the long-term viability of organizations such as OSSTF. In my next post, I will discuss why I believe this.

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