Ontario kids go back to school with labour unrest in the air

School begins Tuesday for some two million children in Ontario’s education system, amid concern that their year will be interrupted by labour disputes.

Contracts for the five major unions representing teachers and education workers in the province expired over the long weekend.

Negotiations between the unions and school boards are ongoing, and none of the unions is in a legal strike position yet.  But with Premier Doug Ford’s government tightening the reins on education spending, and the premier himself making disparaging comments about teachers’ unions, there’s pessimism that the school year will be free of strikes or lockouts.

The odds that all the contracts will be settled without labour disruption are “very slim,” said Maurice Mazerolle, an associate professor at Ryerson University and the director of its Centre for Labour Management Relations.

“There are so many areas where there seem to be disagreements,” said Mazerolle in an interview with CBC News.

The 55,000 education workers represented by CUPE are “preparing to take job action in September,” the union warned in an open letter to parents published in late August.

The union’s members — including clerical staff, custodians and educational assistants — are taking strike votes over the next two weeks, starting today.

“If we need to, we will be taking job action, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up the good old fashioned negotiation,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, in an interview.

A provincial conciliator is involved in CUPE’s talks. That means, after the strike vote is finished, the union could trigger the 17-day countdown that’s required in Ontario before a legal strike can begin.

“Any action we take … will focus on reversing cuts to education funding and protecting services for students,” wrote Walton in the open letter.

Some non-teaching workers represented by CUPE, including speech-language pathologists and mental health support workers, have lost jobs as various school boards trimmed their budgets for 2019-20 in response to the Ford government’s funding restraint.

The province’s education budget is nominally rising this year, but the per-student amount that boards receive is actually decreasing.

Ontario’s education bargaining system at a glance: 

  • Five main unions represent teachers in the public elementary, public secondary, Catholic and francophone systems, as well as non-teaching staff.
  • The umbrella groups representing school boards, alongside the provincial government, negotiate separate central agreements with each union covering the big-ticket items such as wages and benefits.
  • Each local school board also negotiates contracts with each local union covering non-wage items, such as the details of playground supervision duties and staff meetings.

“The bottom line is we’ve put more money in the system writ large into education, we’ve put money to protect teachers,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce during a news conference last week.

“Parents deserve predictability,” Lecce said in a statement after the contracts expired. “I stand with them and will be focused on delivering a deal that protects their children’s future, invests in their potential, and ultimately keeps them in the classroom, where they belong.”

Since taking over as minister in June, Lecce has struck a more conciliatory tone toward the education unions than the premier has.

Ford criticized teachers’ union leaders last spring, claiming they only want to pocket union dues. He also issued a warning to teachers not to strike.

Different unions at different stages

The Ontario Public School Boards Association is the umbrella group that negotiates the central agreement on behalf of English-language school boards in the public system.

“We have meetings scheduled throughout September to continue bargaining” with the three unions representing its employees, said the association’s managing director Shane Gonsalves.

“OPSBA wants to negotiate a collective agreement that is fair, fiscally responsible, and most importantly, gives every Ontario student access to the best possible education,” said Gonsalves in a statement provided to CBC News.

The province’s largest teachers union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario began talks on substantive issues last week.

“ETFO has met with the Council of Trustees’ Associations and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association over the summer and the talks have been respectful,” said president Sam Hammond in a statement. “Bargaining will continue into the fall.”

Talks involving the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) stalled last month over which items should be bargained in the province-wide agreement and which items get negotiated at the local level. The Ontario Labour Relations Board is poised to rule on how to split the issues.

“We’ve tried to speed up the process at every opportunity while the government and school boards have dragged their feet,” said OSSTF president Harvey Bischof in an interview.

The Ford government’s plan to increase the average high school class size and cut some 3,800 teaching positions over the coming four years “absolutely sets up a difficult environment for negotiation,” said Bischof.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) met nine times over the summer with the government and trustees to come up with the ground rules for the talks.

“We have moved into bargaining on substantive matters,” said OECTA president Liz Stuart in a statement.

“Negotiations are ongoing, and there are additional bargaining dates scheduled. As always, it is the association’s goal to negotiate a fair deal, in the best interests of members, that ensures quality working and learning conditions.”

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