A teachers’ union in southern Ontario has decided that if not enough minority members of the board are present, votes will be weighted to further the representation of minority members.
The new system, aimed at improving the representation of Indigenous, Black and racialized teachers in the union’s decision-making process, will ensure that they always represent 50 per cent of the votes. It means that if 15 people voting have not self-identified as racialized, and five have, both groups will be weighted to each represent 50 per cent of the total vote.
The system applies to one local bargaining unit, located in the Halton region, of the larger Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF). The local unit represents roughly 1,400 teachers and staff, according to the website. A motion was proposed at the union’s June annual general meeting and it passed with the support of 68 per cent of delegates.
Such weighted voting does not apply to the whole local’s rank and file; rather, it applies to decisions made by the board of local presidents, who represent the teachers at each school when it comes time to make decisions, explained Daryl LeBlanc, a teacher and branch president with the union.
“I did vote for it,” said LeBlanc. “I do believe it’s a very positive step for equity.”
However, the teacher who asked to remain anonymous, argued this means teachers’ representation when it comes to union decisions rests on whether or not their representative is racialized.
“If your school rep is racialized, then you get a higher percentage of the vote,” the teacher said.
I do believe it’s a very positive step for equity
Several other branch presidents the Post reached out to for comment, by email and telephone, did not respond.
Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an emailed statement that, “teacher unions have once again missed the mark.”
Teachers the Post reached — both for and against the policy change — said only the union president, Cindy Gage, was allowed to speak to the media.
“Bylaws, policies, and procedures, including voting, may evolve based on the goals and priorities of the OSSTF/FEESO membership,” Gage said in an emailed statement Monday. “The Teachers’ Bargaining Unit acknowledges that changes to local policies, procedures and bylaws may create tension within the membership but such tension will not deter efforts to eliminate barriers for members.”
Gage ignored a request for a telephone interview, and did not respond to the Post’s follow-up questions Tuesday about specific aspects of the policy that are under public debate on social media.
While this particular form of weighted voting has proven controversial, the idea has been proposed in other instances, such as in New Jersey in the 1990s, when the state senate tried to weigh votes by population, a move that, had it succeeded, would have given senators between one and 19 votes each.
The question really is, does the union have a valid defence under the law?
The policy in Halton has been in effect since the start of the school year. Sources said it took multiple hours of discussion and the decision to bring in this voting system has left the union divided, with some feeling it is discriminatory, and others saying it is giving a voice to those from a disadvantaged group.
Teachers the Post spoke to said delegates raised fears this would violate Ontario’s human right’s code. The union did not respond to a query about whether or not this had occurred.
Faisal Bhabha, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says something like this seems, on its face, to be discriminatory, but that the Ontario Human Rights Code allows for programs that “remediate inequality.”
“It’s got to be designed specifically to help a disadvantaged group gain equality,” Bhabha explained. “The question really is, does the union have a valid defence under the law?”
Weighted voting, according to a deck of slides explaining the system, which the Post was sent, works like this: If 50 per cent of the voting members present on any given issue are from Indigenous, black or racialized people, voting will proceed per normal. If, however, quorum is not so representative, the votes will be “weighted to ensure a 50/50 representation.”
“This allows further Conversation and Growth Together,” says a document describing the process, which Gage sent to the union membership on Nov. 10.
“We have heard from members at both the local and provincial level within our Union that Black, racialised and Indigenous members do not feel safe or welcome at Union activities,” the email says.
A video embedded in the slideshow argues that although one person, one vote may seem fair, “fair doesn’t necessarily mean equitable.”
It also argues that the policy takes Ontario’s human rights code under consideration, and that processes that aim to help achieve equal opportunity are not violations of the code.
The video also cites the OSSTF’s equity statement.
“Equal opportunity to participate in the Federation does not mean treating all members the same,” it states. “Within a democratic framework, promoting the engagement of members of equity-seeking groups is a valid and necessary approach to reaching equal outcomes.”