Ontario teachers walk off the job

First round of talks under new bargaining rubric break down

A strike looms large in Ontario as teachers prepare for job action this month.

Since negotiations began in earnest with the provincial government and school board associations last September, teachers have been battling it out at the bargaining table, with little headway made on a new collective agreement.

This week, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) plans to join the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) in rotating strikes, which are already in full swing in Peel and Durham regions. Combined, the two represent more than 130,000 public school teachers, occasional teachers and educational assistants.

"The government and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) want to layer on more bureaucracy into the education system, and compromise the ability of teachers to do what’s best for our students," said Sam Hammond, president of the ETFO.

When the Ontario Liberals dropped the latest budget this spring, they made clear there was no room for public service salary increases.

But the concessions on the table now, Hammond said, would effectively strip the collective bargaining rights of membership, as well as compromise the quality of education for students.

"Instead of focusing our concerns around salary increases or monetary items or class size caps, it suddenly became all of these strips to our collective agreement that we hadn’t anticipated," he said. "We were confident they were going to try to put concessions on the table but certainly not more than they already had."

Of particular concern for the union are provisions surrounding class size, preparation time and hiring practices. Changing the contract language for such clauses would be more of a hindrance than a help, Hammond said.

If principals and vice-principals are given the authority to direct teachers’ prep time (about 240 minutes per week) — as the current offer proffers — their ability to adequately do their job would be diminished.

"OPSBA wants the ability to determine how teachers teach," said Hammond. "The person in the education system who knows your child best — your child’s teacher — would no longer be able to develop an instructional plan based on your child’s specific abilities and needs. That doesn’t make any sense when it comes to what’s best for students."

New design

Further complicating the matter is that these talks are the first to take place under Ontario’s new bargaining design.

Last year, education minister Liz Sandals tabled legislation to overhaul the way her department negotiates contracts in schools. The School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, otherwise known as Bill 122, established a two-tiered bargaining scheme.

That means trustee associations and school boards (such as the OSSTF and ETFO) are to join unions and the government at the table. Whereas school boards and unions will negotiate local contract issues, the government will handle any provincewide provisions.

Under the new centralized model, all three parties would need to support a contract before it could be ratified.

Bill 122 replaces the now-repealed Bill 115, and the consensus across labour is that any change would have been a step up from that previous rubric (which imposed labour contracts on teachers, thereby limiting their ability to strike).

The changes were brought about in an attempt to mend the relationship between the province and teachers, which had soured.

"Anything is better than what we went through, particularly under Bill 115. We entered saying we would give it a try, it’s much better than what was in Bill 115," Hammond said, adding that there are still kinks to be ironed out.

"One of the problems, at the central table anyway, is to bargain with two parties on the other side. It makes it very difficult because, instead of dealing with one entity, you’re not sure who you’re dealing with at any given time. That’s problematic."

Learning curve

According to Allan Stitt, a Toronto-based mediator and arbitrator, a two-tiered system comes with a learning curve.

"It was meant to make it easier — and it may still," Stitt said. "This is something that is new for both sides. At the end of the day, it still may prove to be a better system because there may be issues that can be resolved at the local level that don’t need to be dealt with at a macro level."

Despite much rhetoric surrounding Bill 122 and the changes it brought about, Stitt said that once the issue is distilled down to its core, the negotiations are rather archetypal.

"This is the way negotiations often go in their normal course, and the fact that there are financial issues and non-financial issues on the table is not unusual or surprising and it makes sense from a negotiation standpoint," he said, adding that lesser demands can play the part of leverage.

"Initially, usually, in these types of situations, people bring everything that they would like in their dream world to the table at the beginning. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the best way, but it is the most common," he added.

Though Sandals declined to comment directly on the current round of negotiations with public school teachers, she said she remains optimistic.

When Bill 122 was being floated at Queen’s Park early last year, Sandals said the legislation would streamline collective bargaining.

"We developed this legislation after extensive consultations with our education partners. My commitment, and our government’s commitment, is to strengthen the relationships we have with these stakeholders," she said at the time.

"This legislation will help bring more clarity and consistency to future rounds of bargaining and allow us to move forward together."

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