Ontario teachers hit the picket lines Friday in a massive provincewide strike that has shut down almost 5,000 schools and impacted more than 2 million students.
The huge show of force by nearly 200,000 teachers and education workers aims to protest government cuts — the first such provincewide strike since 1997, when all of Ontario’s teachers walked off the job.
All four Ontario teachers’ unions have staged rotating strikes on separate days — but Friday’s unified job action is meant to send a clear message to the province, which has been embroiled in tense contract negotiations with each of the unions. The issues teachers are fighting for differ, depending on if they’re in the elementary or secondary panel, but one thing all unions have in common is the battle for greater compensation.
“The things I care most about are class sizes, (protection of full-day) kindergarten as well as (addressing) classroom violence,” said Toronto public school teacher Adam Dharsee, who teaches Grade 5/6. “When it comes to salary it is the last on the list. But to me, it is still very important.”
A salary increase that’s in keeping with the rate of inflation, which this year is about 2 per cent, is among the key issues at the bargaining table for all four unions, which collectively represent public elementary, public secondary, French and English Catholic educators, as well as support workers and professional staff. The province, however, is offering 1 per cent, in line with recent wage-cap legislation for public sector workers.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has repeatedly described compensation as a major sticking point — unions dispute this — and called the province’s teachers “some of the highest-paid educators in the country.”
“Repeated escalation (of strike action) at the expense of our students’ education, to advance higher compensation, higher wages, and even more generous benefits, is unacceptable for parents and students,” he has said.
When it comes to public opinion, many are backing the teachers’ unions on issues such as opposing the province’s move towards larger class size averages and mandatory e-learning for high school students, as well preserving full-day kindergarten. But support wanes when it comes to a salary hike.
Dharsee, 28, who’s been teaching for five years and makes about $70,000 a year, supports a 2 per cent hike. For him, that’s about $1,400 extra a year — but he notes he spends up to $1,200 of his own money “to ensure the best learning environment for my students.” A classroom budget of $275 from the school board isn’t enough to cover the cost of “running a successful classroom,” so he digs into his own pocket to pay for things such as pencils, books, binders and even salt, which he recently needed for a science experiment, saying “Those costs add up over a year.”
And, he notes, teachers are not paid for work done on their own time, such as the seven hours he spends each weekend marking and planning lessons. Nor are they paid for coaching sports, running clubs or providing students with extra help — all of which Dharsee does.
“Yes, the 2 per cent is important but we care more about our students,” he says, adding many teachers are protesting to stop government cuts that hurt students. While compensation matters, he says it’s not the driving force, pointing out he’s already lost about 2 per cent in salary due to strike days. “We are essentially sacrificing the pay increase that we are fighting for.”
While other issues may be top of mind for the four teachers’ unions — Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the union representing French-language teachers, Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens — the Star takes a deeper look at the thorny issue of salary.
What does an Ontario teacher get paid?
According to the Education Ministry, for the 2018-19 school year, the average provincially funded teacher salary was $90,469 ($99,914 including benefits). For elementary teachers, the average salary was $89,268 ($98,588 including benefits), and for high school teachers it was $92,913 ($102,613 including benefits). With about 131,000 full-time equivalent teachers — including those working in classrooms, libraries and as guidance teachers — school boards reported spending about $12.1 billion on teacher compensation. Teachers move up in salary based on years of service and additional qualifications. In general, it takes 11 to 12 years, plus additional qualifications, to reach top pay. Ontario’s teachers are the second highest paid educators in the country, behind Alberta.
How many hours do they work?
A teacher’s salary gets spread out over 12 months, but they’re only paid for 194 days, which is the school year. They are not paid for statutory holidays, summer holidays, winter break and March Break.
Teachers are paid for the 300-minute instructional day, which is a five-hour school day. But, the reality is they can’t get all their work done in that time, which may include marking, planning lessons, writing report cards, running extracurricular activities and speaking to parents, so they work beyond the school day. One study done in 2014, found that public elementary teachers work, on average, about 50 hours a week.
Why is a 2 per cent increase important for teachers?
Daniel Crow, an education researcher with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) — it’s not one of the four unions currently bargaining with the province — says education workers and teachers have been the “target of wage restraint” since 2012. That’s when bargaining was done under Bill 115, the Liberals’ legislation known as the Putting Students First Act, which allowed the province to impose a two-year wage freeze. In fact, teachers and education workers got a zero per cent wage increase for four consecutive years, from 2012 to 2015. And since 2016, wage increases have trended below inflation, with the maximum being 1.5 per cent. From 2012 until Aug. 31, 2019, there has been a 5.5 per cent wage increase over those years.
“Teachers and education workers have been trending so far below inflation that they’ve effectively taken a wage cut,” he said. “Two per cent right now would essentially only protect them against inflation for these years — so in real terms 2 per cent is not a wage increase… You’re taking home a larger number of dollars than you were last year, but your purchasing power is going to be the same.”
He notes in the past decade the education sector has twice been impacted by wage restraint legislation. There was Bill 115 — it was eventually repealed and later found to be unconstitutional in 2016 — and last fall the Progressive Conservatives passed a law capping public-sector wages at 1 per cent annually, known as Bill 124. It impacts teachers, as well as nurses, professors, bureaucrats and Ontario Provincial Police officers, among others. Unions warn the bill is unconstitutional and the four teachers’ unions have launched Charter challenges, saying it interferes with their collective bargaining rights.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that two of the teachers’ unions also represent education workers, who earn much less than teachers, so the 2 per cent increase is especially important for them.
For instance, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario also represents early childhood educators, professional support staff and education support staff who earn about $36,000 a year.
How does a Toronto teacher’s hourly wage compare?
According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey for the Toronto Economic Region, the 2019 median hourly wage rate for an elementary school and kindergarten teacher was $42.79, and for a high school teacher it was $45.19. By comparison, the median hourly wage in the region was $24.71.
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Teachers are essential but how do we actually compensate essential service workers?
Last year, the Toronto police and the police board, which is an arm of the city, agreed on a deal that would see wages increase by 11.06 per cent over five years, and increases in key health and dental benefits, plus an additional 3 per cent pay hike for front-line officers. Also last year, Toronto firefighters began a new five-year collective agreement after reaching a deal with the city that would see wages increase by 10.57 per cent over five years. For both police and firefighters that is, on average, more than 2 per cent a year.
Even though both those professions are deemed essential services, meaning they can’t go on strike, Crow doesn’t think that’s the reason their salary hike was higher than what’s being offered to teachers and education workers. Rather, he suspects gender plays a role, noting police and firefighters are predominantly male, while teachers are predominantly female.
“Hospital workers, workers in long-term care facilities and some health-care workers are also designated as essential services and do not have the right to strike… but their wage increases have also been trending below inflation,” says Crow, noting those are also jobs that are predominantly occupied by women. “So, I think the gender wage gap analysis is a much more compelling explanation for why firefighters and police will get a better deal than occupations where (most) of the membership are women.”
Who’s offering the biggest raises, private or public sector?
If you look at public sector wages in Ontario going back to 2010, they have consistently trended below the private sector, says Crow of CUPE. Public sector wages have been below inflation in each year except for 2017 — when inflation was 1.7 per cent and the increases were 1.9 per cent. Meanwhile, he says, private sector wages have trended, for the most part, just above 2 per cent.
CUPE represents 55,000 education workers in Ontario, such as custodians, education assistants, early childhood educators and clerical staff, whose average salary is about $38,000. It reached a three-year collective agreement in the fall with the province, giving CUPE education workers a 1 per cent wage increase per year. The settlement includes a “me too” clause, meaning if the province gives other unions in the education sector more than 1 per cent — including the four currently in negotiations — it will have to give the same amount to CUPE members as well.
Rowan O’Grady, president of the recruitment agency Hays Canada, says over the past five years a growing number of Canadian companies offered wage increases of under 3 per cent, noting, “market conditions were good but companies were taking a more conservative approach to salaries.”
“That is, until this year, where there was a sudden jump back to offering 3 per cent or more,” he says, pointing out nearly 35 per cent of Canadian companies polled by Hays said they intended to give employees a salary increase of 3 per cent or more in 2020.
O’Grady says the teachers’ request for 2 per cent is reasonable given inflation in 2019, and projected inflation for 2020, and it’s in line with what other employers are planning this year.
And what about salary, private or public sector?
On average, public sector jobs pay more than private sector positions, but that’s not a fair comparison, says Rafael Gomez, an associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto. That’s because public sector jobs typically call for more education and a higher set of skills, while the private sector includes many more jobs, in areas such as hospitality and retail, that require less education and fewer skills, so they’ll be paid less.
“You have to compare apples with apples,” says Gomez, who’s also the director of the university’s Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources. When you compare people with the same levels of education and skill sets, those in the private sector have higher salaries.
He adds that in the private sector, you can tie wage growth to earnings, meaning there are a lot of bonus and incentive schemes tied to how the company is doing. “You don’t have the same performance measures in the public sector. So you depend on these across-the-board wage increases to move the floor up.”
Does the public support a pay hike for teachers?
A Campaign Research survey commissioned by the Star, showed the majority of those polled backed teachers and oppose boosting high school class averages from the current 22.5 students to 25 — this would lead to fewer teachers and course options — and requiring those students to take two online courses. And there was overwhelming support to protect full-day kindergarten. But when it comes to salaries, 45 per cent agree with the province’s offer of 1 per cent and 35 per cent support the teachers’ bid for 2 per cent. As to what kind of pay increase teachers should receive, 12 per cent said none, 32 per cent supported hikes of up to 1 per cent, 35 per cent backed increases of up to 2 per cent and 9 per cent recommended raises of more than 2 per cent — 12 per cent weren’t sure. When told Ontario teachers earn an average of $93,000, 44 per cent said that sounded about right, 37 per cent thought it was too high and 8 per cent thought it was too low — the remainder didn’t know. (A randomly selected sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)