Collective bargaining is not going well for public school teachers in Ontario. In a scenario that BC educators can surely sympathize with, they face legislation that will freeze wages, cut benefits, and limit collective bargaining rights. On August 16th, Susan Lambert shared the BCTF's recent collective bargaining experiences with delgates at OSSTF's leadership conference - that video can be found here.
What follows is a summary of teacher bargaining as it has unfolded in Ontario since February.
Ontario is facing a $15.3-billion deficit and McGuinty’s Liberal government is taking a hard line on public sector bargaining. Teachers’ four-year contracts expire the end of August. The government wants deals before they expire.
In return for maintaining full-day Kindergarten, elementary class sizes, and prep time, the Liberals are asking the teacher unions to take a two-year salary freeze, to have no movement within the existing salary grid, and to put an end to retirement payouts for unused sick days. The government intends on not just freezing the grid but “fixing it for the long term”. If they don’t agree, the gains negotiated previously are at risk.
The government’s framework includes no increases to provincial pension contributions which could result in rolled-back benefits to avoid increased contributions by teachers.
ETFO President Sam Hammond attended a preliminary meeting to begin contract talks and instead encountered James Farley, a retired judge hired by the government, who tabled the government’s proposal.
ETFO called the offer “offensive” and declined to participate in talks scheduled for March. OSSTF denounced the offer as “unacceptable” and “an unprecedented attack on members’ rights”.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan tabled the provincial budget and warned public sector unions that he would resort to legislation if workers who bargain collectively do not voluntarily agree to two-year wage freezes.
The Liberals warned ETFO that they risk losing smaller class sizes and extra prep time if they do not return to the bargaining table. According to the education minister, Laurel Broten, ETFO refused repeated requests to discuss the government’s proposals. Other unions were at the table.
One day before ETFO was expected to announce that it intended to negotiate locally with school boards, the education minister sent a letter to all school board chairs reminding them that the gains teachers won in 2005 and 2008 resulted from bargaining at the provincial table. It was intended to discourage boards from engaging in contract talks with teacher unions.
Sam Hammond said that ETFO will defy the minister and negotiate with individual school boards instead of with the government at the provincial table.
In mid-April, OSSTF filed a legal challenge with the Ontario Labour Relations Board against the Liberal government for its approach to bargaining. They ultimately joined ETFO in abandoning bargaining talks with the government, after two days of fruitless discussions. OSSTF’s proposal included a two-year wage freeze and a plan to encourage older teachers to retire; however, it did not include anything about the salary grid or sick days, and the government found the proposal unacceptable. OSSTF president Ken Coran indicated that his union would, like ETFO, negotiate with individual school boards.
In a surprise move at the beginning of the month, OECTA broke ranks with other teachers’ unions and signed a deal directly with the provincial government. Past agreements had typically been brokered between individual Catholic school boards and the unions, but five months of talks with trustees went nowhere. Ultimately, after the trustees walked away from the table, OECTA felt that their best chance for a reasonable deal was to negotiate with the government alone.
The deal would give OECTA members a two-year pay freeze, three unpaid professional development days, fewer sick days, and prevent them from banking unused sick days. Because the agreement is a memorandum of understanding between OECTA and the Ministry of Education, not a collective agreement, OECTA members did not vote; instead, the agreement was ratified by the OECTA Provincial Executive. Education Minister Broten called the deal a “road map” for bargaining with other teacher groups. Ken Coran announced at a press conference that, “The deal may be good enough for OECTA members, but it is not good enough for OSSTF/FEESO members.”
Towards the end of the month, assistant deputy minister of education Gabriel Sékaly sent a memo to Ontario school boards directing them to reach a deal with the teachers’ unions before the start of the new school year, and to work within the contract framework established by the Ministry of Education and OECTA. The memo implies that, should a board fail to do so, they could face a provincial takeover.
Premier Dalton McGuinty threatened to recall the legislature early in an effort to pre-empt teacher job action at the beginning of the new school year, should teachers and school boards not reach agreements voluntarily by the end of August. Educators are accusing McGuinty of unnecessarily worrying parents and misleading voters in order to shore up support for legislation; OSSTF president Ken Coran has stated that, “We have no plans to take any strike action at the start of the school year.” Greg Pietersma, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board, is quoted as saying, “I can categorically state that students will show up to school on Sept. 4 and there is no union, no local, no school board in a position to either lock out or go on strike.”
On August 9th, the Minister of Education announced a Memorandum of Understanding with AEFO, the francophone teachers’ union. The agreement is very similar to the OECTA MOU, and includes a two-year wage freeze. However, a number of English Catholic and francophone school boards, upset at having been cut out of the bargaining process and concerned about a loss of management rights, have rejected the tentative deals that the government reached with OECTA and AEFO and have applied for conciliation. A conciliator will determine whether a settlement can be reached with the boards, though the odds of this happening are thought to be slim. If the conciliator does not succeed, the school boards and the teachers’ unions will have the option of a strike or a lockout.
A survey released by ETFO on August 14th shows that 77% of the 1,000 Ontarians polled believe that the government should negotiate to reach a mutual agreement with teachers, while only 19% believe that legislation should be imposed.
The Liberals' draft legislation was announced on August 16th.