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Where Was James?

NDP leader shrewdly ducked while everyone else got spattered.

Rafe Mair 24 Oct 2005TheTyee.ca

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There are lessons to be learned from the teacher's strike but teachers don't, evidently, make good pupils.

Let's start with NDP leader Carole James Usually when silence is an option, the NDP make a big noise. The school teachers' strike evidently jammed a rag in the throat of NDP leader Carole James who was, one is forced to admit, in very tough spot. In fact, had I been advising Carole James (I know that conjures up an astonishing image) I would have told her to do as she did - keep her own counsel and wait until Gordon Campbell and Mike DeJong (Premier and Labour minister respectively for those reading this in faraway places) blab their way to political perdition.

We must remember that not all teachers support the NDP (or their union either, for that matter) and, of course, the general voting public, which can be wooed into either camp, can't be ignored. On the other side of that red hot coin, is the union movement and what it means to the NDP and the struggle Ms. James is waging (unsuccessfully) to get rid of the affiliation clause that binds organized labour to the party.

Shy Shirley Bond

I remember another moment, hidden in the mists of time, when the NDP faced a similar conundrum. It was back in '77 or '78 when the Bill Bennett government brought in a bill to give some financial assistance to private schools. The NDP upchucked at the thought of St. Georges or Crofton House getting public dough but didn't want to offend small, usually religious, schools in their ridings. Their solution was to simply not show up for the debate or the vote. As I say, education issues cause a lot of heartburn for the NDP and especially its leaders.

I think Carole James has been wise, which is not necessarily popular with anyone. For one thing, she let her education critic John Horgan do the talking. Premier Campbell, obviously not listening to his hero Bill Bennett, couldn't keep his mouth shut. In fact, the shyest of the ministers was the education minister herself, Shirley Bond who has had the least to say - probably a good thing, on reflection - as Labour Minister Mike DeJong hogged the coverage only deferring to the premier.

Sensible leaders leave it to the appropriate minister or critic to deal with issues within their ministry. In fact, sensible leaders stay far, far away from all issues save those they can't avoid. To go further, sensible premiers don't squander whatever independence their labour minister has managed to garner, by pitching him into the trenches. His mantra that the "teachers' are defying the law" sounds a tad hollow coming from a member of a government that legislates valid contracts out of existence.

Ready to mature?

The teachers' strike has revealed a great deal of immaturity on both sides. Teachers are always spoiling for a fight with right-wing governments. This right-wing government, which has a deep commitment to never turn the other cheek when it can jump in the melee and make things worse, has been taunting the teachers for years. Unfortunately, the teachers are no better at turning that old cheek than their tormentors.

While most labour disputes have professional and skilled negotiators on each side, and the minister of labour has a handful of potential trouble shooters on hand to suggest as mediators, in this case, the teachers had as their negotiator their top politician, Jinny Sims, while the government threw its top politician and his labour minister into the fray. It is the absence of skilled negotiators that, in my opinion, got us where we are and it seems that the highly regarded mediator, Vince Ready, got these scorpions in the bottle disengaged and talking to one another.

In the meantime, the Mair suggestion remains. Put class size and associated issues back in the agreement, while creating a permanent arbitration panel made up of someone selected from each side, selecting a chair which panel will judge the classroom issues which findings will be binding. And even though I am now an indigent broadcaster, the suggestion comes for free.

Rafe Mair will continue to write his Monday column for The Tyee. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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