Teaching Reflections · Topics for Parents and Students

“Christmas Vacation” as an Allegory of Education Labour Disputes

Halloween is nearly a week behind us, which means that the media and consumer industry has decided that it is now the “Christmas” season, even though polite society dictates that it should not begin until after Remembrance Day.

I won’t let myself jump into the holiday season with two feet until after November 11th. Nevertheless, Christmas is on my mind…as well as the minds of my own children who wanted to watch their (and my) favourite Christmas movie already this week, Chevy Chase’s comedy classic, Christmas Vacation : the story of Clark Griswold’s quest for the ‘perfect’ Christmas, which runs into a variety of challenges. Hilarity ensues.

Many of you reading this blog are most likely familiar with the film, yet have absolutely no idea about where I’m going in terms of how this film relates to education labour disputes. Hear me out.

As a teacher in Ontario,  labour disputes have been at the forefront of my mind on and off for the the past decade due to the shaky ground education workers seem to constantly find themselves in with the Ontario government (regardless of partisanship).

Perhaps that’s how I began seeing it in other stories like Christmas Vacation. The scene that sparked my connection is one of the most iconic of the film….where Clark, on edge about receiving his Christmas bonus due to extending himself financially, instead receives a membership in the “jelly of the month club”. Infuriated by the clear disregard for his contribution as an employee, he loses it.

Education workers can relate to Clark’s fury and frustration, feeling the same way each time they are slighted by governments seeking to undermine their value and disregard their importance to the education system, when really they are the heart of it.

Once I began making connections, I couldn’t stop and ended up really thinking about how the film’s main characters can allegorically represent the three big players in Ontario (or any) education labour dispute: education workers (Clark Griswold), government (Frank Shirley), and unions (cousin Eddie).

Education Workers as ‘Clark Griswold’

Clark Griswold is the protagonist of the film who is portrayed as the classic suburban dad: kind, unassuming, trying to make ends meet for his ‘family’ in the best way he knows how. Clark has his faults, but his love for his family is unbreakable, and this drives his desire for a family backyard oasis which will showcase his hard work in the suburban landscape. Clark embodies the values of the hard working middle class, despite the fact that his “boss”, Mr. Shirley, doesn’t know his name, abuses his kindness and hard work for his own capitalistic desires, and selfishly cancels his Christmas bonus, which leads to his cousin, Eddie,  kidnapping him.

Education employees, like Clark, are generally hardworking and oblivious to the fact that their employers think of them as insignificant numbers that can be easily replaced. Regardless, they soldier on and do their best to please their employers despite the fact that they clearly aren’t appreciated. Just as Clark’s bonus is reduced by Mr. Shirley to save money, so have the benefits and salaries of education employees, even if it meant breaking previously agreed upon standards which were contractual (such as sick day gratuities in Ontario).

Government as ‘Mr. Shirley’

Mr. Shirley is a character than represents capitalism and power. He has a fleet of ‘minions’ who follow him around at his beck and call, sits in an isolated office, completely unaware of his employees names or activities unless they suit a purpose he is invested in. To save money, he decides to sideswipe his hardworking employees with changing their yearly Christmas bonus (a non-contractual part of their salary) with a membership to the “jelly of the month” club.

The government of Ontario, regardless of who is in power, is easily recognized as Mr. Shirley. They are concerned about one thing: money, and constantly feel like they need more of it. Completely ignorant of the hard work of their employees (education workers), Ontario governments make fiscal decisions paramount regardless of the impact it takes on the education workforce.

Teachers Unions as ‘Cousin Eddie’

Cousin ‘Eddie’ and his family show up three days before Christmas, unannounced, on the Griswold’s lawn as Christmas lights are being lit. While there, they cause a variety of problems including pressuring Clark into funding their ‘Christmas’ through Eddie’s passive aggressive persuasion. Nevertheless, in the end, it is cousin Eddie’s genuine desire to help out his cousin, Clark, through a misunderstanding of his wishes that brings upon a positive resolution to the conflict between Clark and Mr. Shirley.

Cousin Eddie, as a distant, once removed relative of Clark is a comical symbol of Teacher’s Unions. Like Clark, teachers rarely see union representatives unless it is a time that really matters – such as Eddie appearing at Christmas (contract negotiations). Moreover, like cousin Eddie, Teacher’s Unions are financially supported by teachers, and genuinely believe they are doing what is in their best interests. Nevertheless, they often act too impulsively and get teachers (Clark) into more trouble than they bargained for. They do have the best interests of teachers at heart, though, much like Eddie does with Clark, and often instigate the resolution to conflict by aggressively pushing the government (Mr. Shirley) into a position that forces them to balance fiscal needs with those of education workers.

Final Word

Perhaps it would be easy to see any labour dispute as an allegory of Christmas Vacation – not just that of education workers. Clark (layman employee), Mr. Shirley (capitalist boss) and Cousin Eddie (foil character) are characters whose stories are timeless and relevant – especially when interacting together.

Since Ontario teachers finally have a school year without the threat of a labour dispute this entire scenario should be far from my mind, yet here it is still present – manifesting itself as a reminder that the threat of reoccurrence is ever present.

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