Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unions' Self-Inflicted Problems

Although I spend most of my blogging time on my other site, Politics and Its Discontents, I still occasionally post here, sometimes cross-posting on both blogs. the following is one I posted today on my other site, but I feel it does have some relevance both to education and to the promotion of critical thinking skills:

Allow me to be unequivocal from the start: I am a strong believer in unions as virtually the only effective means of countering the depredations that employers would inflict upon their workers if given the opportunity. However, I also believe that in some ways, unions are their own worst enemies, an opinion I formed as a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation during my teaching career.

Like many if not most institutions, unions have become highly political in both their structure and their treatment of members. My own experience with my former union was that they had little time or respect for those, like me, who expressed opinions that challenged their positions, especially since I was not a member of the executive. I suspect it is this refusal to both respect and to cultivate the 'ordinary' union member that poses a threat to the union movement's future greater than any that might emerge from so-called 'right-to-work' legislation that is becoming increasingly popular in the United States.

I was prompted to reflect on the topic this morning during breakfast as I read The Toronto Star. A story entitled Construction union pays $10 million to buy off employees reveals a curious kind of union-busting tactic within a union framework that has been employed by the Labourers’ International Union of North America in Toronto.

The first four paragraphs of the story read as follows:

The continent’s biggest construction local is spending more than $10 million to muscle out its own staff and their new union.

In a twist to the explosive political infighting that occasionally flares up in the labour movement, the Toronto-based Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183 is buying out about 80 employees with lucrative financial packages after they joined another union.

Several insiders say the move will effectively snuff out the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, which represents Local 183 staff, because replacement members won’t have any allegiances and will eventually decertify it.

“It’s disgusting what Local 183 has done to get rid of them and the union,” one insider said Tuesday. “It’s a good example for non-union companies. If you don’t want a union, just buy off the employees.”

The rest of the story describes the political machinations within the local and how the staff joined a rival union to try to circumvent revenge firings that regularly ensue when staff has backed the wrong candidates for union elections. Indeed, there is even a tactic discussed in the story reminiscent of the show-trials popularized by Joseph Stalin during the 1930's.

I hope you will read the entire article to get the full flavor of union politics.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A New School Year Begins

There is no doubt in my mind that education is not what it once was. And no, this is not about to become a screed about the lowering of academic standards. Rather, it is only a recognition that like just about everything else, education has become a commodity, its value measured almost exclusively by its ability to lead to a good-paying job.

What's wrong with that, one might ask? While having a job that remunerates well is a desirable outcome, in my view, as a retired high school teacher, it should be one of the end results of a good education, not education's raison d'etre.

The classical notion of education, as a process whereby we gain the tools with which to interpret the world, is now considered a quaint notion, one that may be pursued by the wealthy, but one that has no practical place in the 'real world'. In other words, acquiring the tools for critical thinking, as opposed to the learning how to design something or to enter the business world, is largely considered to be a time-waster, something that will not serve one in good stead. That is how far we have deviated from and declined from real education.

And, at the risk of sounding like a wild-eyed radical, that departure serves the corporate agenda very well. Universities, once a breeding ground fermenting new ideas whose goal was to make us better as a society and as a species, has become so debased that it is now largely there to maintain the status quo, not to rock the boat. It no longer holds the potential for infusing society with new intellectual blood, but rather has become the silent enabler of the corporate aim, to serve the god of unfettered capitalism that masquerades as the friend to all.

So, on this first day back to school for so many, what can the average person do, hungry for change and challenge to what has become the status quo that has betrayed countless millions of North Americans? She and he can become educated and acquire critical thinking skills through the rigours of reading and informed discussion.

Here are a few suggestions to start off:

The Trouble with Billionaires – Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks
The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein
The Death of the Liberal Class – Chris Hedges

One warning to those who haven't read these works: approaching them with an open mind will inevitably lead to agitation, outrage, and a changed world view. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you will now begin to see 'the man behind the curtain.' I do not advise perusal at bedtime, unless the prospect of insomnia inspires no fear.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Ontario Liberal Government's Proposal To Extend Teacher Training

Recently, the McGuinty-led Liberal government of Ontario has proposed extending to two years from one the training of new teachers. The logic seems to be that the additional training will make for better teachers AND reduce the number of unemployed new graduates.

While I can't really address the efficacy of such a proposal in turning out better-qualified teachers, my own memory of teacher training being that it was only during the practicum that I learned anything useful, I can address its second purpose with considerable confidence.

As a retired teacher who has long opposed teachers doing supply and contract work post-retirement, one part of the solution to unemployment amongst new graduates is to ban this practice, something neither the teacher federations nor the government have shown any appetite for. It has always seemed manifestly unjust and selfish to me for retired colleagues to be denying new grads the opportunity to gain some experience and make some contacts within the crucible of supply and contract work.

However, the proposed lengthening of teacher training to two years from one as a solution to teacher unemployment is only a way of avoiding political risks. Several years ago, in anticipation of a teacher shortage that never materialized, the Ontario government significantly increased the number of university spots to train teachers. Rather than now reducing that number to realistic levels, (which would also reduce education faculties' revenues,) the McGuinty government has once more opted to play politics instead of showing real leadership.

And speaking of politics, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, of which I am a former member, by immediately and reflexively supporting this two-year initiative, has demonstrated that it is more interested in supporting the objectives of the Liberal government than it is in representing the interests of its members.