Allison Hanes: Pain of teachers' strike mounts as government drags its feet

What has Quebec come to if striking teachers — some of society’s most important workers — can’t pay their bills or put food on the table?

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Jean-François Proulx, who teaches math and adult education, is married to a Grade 1 teacher.

He was on strike for seven days last week with the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement (FSE), a CSQ-affiliated union. His wife has been on an unlimited general strike as a member of the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) for almost a month now. Neither union has a strike fund.

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Still, Proulx considers his family among the more fortunate.

He knows couples who are both teachers on strike and haven’t collected a paycheque since Nov. 23.

Then there are the single-parent households in a profession dominated by women, who are carrying a particularly heavy burden.

So much for Premier François Legault’s premature prediction last week that all Quebec students would be back in class by Monday.

Instead, an unlimited strike by 66,000 teachers with the FAE that has closed schools indefinitely for nearly 400,000 children is in its fourth week.

That’s nearly a month those teachers have been on the picket lines; a month without pay as Christmas looms, as they fight for better pay and improved working conditions that reflect the important responsibilities as well as tough realities they face in the classroom.

It’s also been nearly a month that hundreds of thousands of students have been out of school; of no lunch programs for the hungry; of no lessons, psychosocial support for children in difficulty or French integration for newcomers. It’s going on a month that many parents have had to work from home, find other childcare arrangements or miss their jobs altogether.

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Another 95,000 teachers who belong to the FSE were on strike alongside other public-sector workers, such as nurses, for seven days last week. They returned to the classroom on Friday — at least until the end of this week.

What happens for all teachers and students after the two-week Christmas break will depend on how things go at the bargaining table in the coming days. FSE president Josée Scalabrini said Sunday that a resolution is still possible before Christmas.

But the fact the strike has dragged on for this long is taking a major toll on those who are most seriously affected, both in the short term and the long term.

Last week, community organizations that have been running day camps for some of Montreal’s most vulnerable children voiced concerns about gaps in learning, lost opportunities for language acquisition, hunger, worsening mental health and growing financial strain. They likened the effects of the prolonged strike to the first wave of the pandemic, a period of difficulty that also widened social, educational and economic disparities. If schools reopen in January — probably the best-case scenario — it will have amounted to seven weeks out of class, or close to the equivalent of summer.

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But now teachers are becoming vulnerable themselves.

Katie, a high school teacher who works in the English sector, was on strike for seven days last week and four in November, meaning no salary. She didn’t want her last name or school board mentioned.

While her husband doesn’t work in education, she knows teachers who have had to defer mortgage payments with their banks. Others have had to take on jobs they used to do when they were young adults, like babysitting and bartending.

“It’s about the worst time of year for this to happen,” Katie said. “There are lots of Christmas wishes that won’t be met.”

But she said the pain is necessary if it means more help for students facing challenges, more professionals to pitch in during classes and more time to focus on teaching. She feels for her fellow teachers who are approaching a month on the streets.

“They’re making such huge sacrifices, it shows how bad things have gotten for them to think this is worth it,” Katie said.

The sacrifices are serious, Proulx said. Some teachers are getting so desperate, they could use the help of food banks to feed their families. But he said many organizations require proof of income before offering aid, which disqualifies those on strike.

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So teachers have been helping each other. Proulx spearheaded a hastily organized donation drive on Dec. 9 in which gift cards for groceries and gas, warm clothes and toys were distributed to 33,000 striking teachers. A second campaign is slated for Saturday; the public is invited to drop off donations at 10 locations around Quebec in the morning, to be distributed to teachers in the afternoon. Proulx noted assistance is reserved for FAE members who have been without pay the longest.

“I hope we can meet the demand,” he said. “We know there is a great need.”

What has Quebec come to if teachers — some of society’s most important and essential workers — can’t pay their bills or put food on the table? Yes, the unions voted to strike. But how has a sustainable settlement — not only for teachers themselves, but for our children and the school system — not been a top priority if Quebec truly values education?

Polling shows the public is strongly behind teachers. But perhaps the patience of parents is inadvertently hurting teachers by letting the government off the hook for dragging its feet.

The longer schools stay closed, the harder the return will be — and the more likely even more of the teachers Quebec so desperately needs will call it quits, increasing the strain for those who remain in the classroom.

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