My mom is a retired teacher and fairly active in progressive politics. Over a recent dinner, we started talking about striking Ontario teachers, Bill 115 (the Ontario government’s bill sending the teachers back to work), and the fallout, including the issue of sick days. Mom said first that she couldn’t imagine not doing extracurricular activities, and she thought that banking sick days for a retirement payoffs was a thing of the past.  That’s an opinion held by quite a few people.

The issue, as it is popularly understood, is generally as follows: The teachers’ old collective agreement gave them annual sick days, which can be saved up over a career to a maximum of 200, and paid out upon retirement. An average lump sum for cashing out sick days over a career is over $40,000 (according to this CP story). UPDATE: This figure is disputed; teachers say it is less than that, and that not all teachers are even eligible for such a payout.

But what if the issue is more complex – or simpler – than that?

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda blog ran a great post on the sick days issue. The post suggests that the common understanding of the sick days issue may not be accurate or based on fact. It also suggests that the culprit for this may be “a colossal failure of communication on behalf of the government or on behalf of the union to its members.”

How the public – especially parents – perceives issues like this through the media and discussion with friends, families and fellow parents is critical to the communications strategies of the government, school boards and the teachers’ unions. And that strategy is critical to achieving their goals, whether it be cutting costs, successfully negotiating a collective agreement or preserving benefits.

Who could have thought that the perceptions among so many interests active in this debate (including the media) would be potentially under informed? Could the entire debate have been more focused to all involved, and possibly less contentious?

A good lesson for communicators here: frame the issue clearly, simply and honestly – based on facts.

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