The province is fighting its education-sector unions and people are feeling the ripples.

The circular headlines have become repetitive; negotiations stalling, cutbacks at issue, union taking a strike vote, union taking work-to-rule job action. We have seen it with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. We have yet to see actual strikes or school closures but they seem to be close.

To some, these negotiations and headlines are bothersome. The unions threatening to strike may seem selfish. The instability is a headache in the already hectic lives of parents.

But it cannot be denied these unions’ efforts have succeeded at pushing back government cuts. They are the group best equipped to do that.

Consider some of the major changes the province is implementing to save costs. It initially planned to cut funding to push the average high school class size from 22 to 28 students over the next four years, with smaller increases at the elementary school level.

That sent shock waves through the sector, which were felt locally. Across Trillium Lakelands District School Board, there were 50 support staff layoffs, 24 retiring teachers that went unreplaced and 100 fewer programs on offer.

Plenty of protests have occurred against these cuts in the months since, from the streets to the board rooms to newspaper columns. Justified concern was raised about the harms of ballooning class sizes, with students getting less time with their teachers. But the province did not budge – not until they were facing down a lot of angry unions.

The province relented Oct. 24 amidst tense OSSTF negotiations, announcing it would instead provide funding to make the class size average 25. Not a complete victory – the OSSTF is still fighting on this point – but significantly better. Where concerned students, parents, pundits and administrators failed, unions succeeded.

The unions scored another point on the province’s plans to mandate high school students get four online course credits to graduate. Pitched as a step into the future, the idea falls flat in rural areas like Haliburton, where good internet connectivity is not universal. Online courses should be explored and expanded, but the mandating seemed an idea much more concerned with provincial pocketbooks than student betterment.

But the unions got concessions here too. The province reduced its planned mandate from four courses to two. The OSSTF seems intent to make that number zero but it is a significant gain that could have a very tangible impact on our students.

Unions are often unfairly maligned as greedy and their concerns get boiled down to money. But they are often fighting for more than just compensation. The ETFO, for instance, is trying to get issues such as a rising amount of school violence addressed.

If you find yourself grumbling about a union, it is worthwhile to dig into what is being fought over and think critically about where you stand on these issues. These negotiations are always complicated and deserve more thought.

It is vital the governments of all stripes – and businesses, for that matter – get held to account. Unions are an important check and balance to them.

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