TORONTO––Members of Ontario’s secondary school union voted Monday to withdraw from participation in all extracurricular activities effective December 10.
“The temperature has been turned up a notch,” Ken Coran, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said at a press conference in Toronto.
Mr. Coran said that while extracurricular activities will stop after December 10, there will not be any strike action at this point. “Our members will continue to deliver curriculum. They will be in the classroom every day,” he said. “We are very hopeful that the public will see that we are trying to do what is best for the students.”
Meanwhile, there is little sign of progress in labour negotiations between the Rainbow District School Board and the OSSTF. If no agreement satisfactory to the minister of education is met by December 31, provincial legislation (Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act) enables the minister of education to impose contract settlements on those groups where agreements are still outstanding.
During negotiations this past summer, the provincial executive of OECTA (Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association) and the Association des Enseignantes et des Enseignants Franco-Ontariens (AEFO) signed an agreement which set the baseline for contracts between teachers and local school boards, but most of the school boards and the 34,000 teachers represented by the separate school unions have not yet reached mutual agreements.
As of press time, only one labour negotiation between a public school board and its secondary school union have come to an agreement that has been approved by both sides and the minister; that is Upper Grand River District School Board. The Upper Grand River School Board agreement did not match the Catholic School boards template, but the differences were such as to not alarm the minister.
Other school boards that have negotiated an agreement had portions of their contracts sent back because there where clauses that did not get the minister of education’s agreement, including York Region, Niagara and Hamilton.
Pushback on Bill 115 has not been coming solely from the unions, however. A number of school boards are requesting the province rescind Bill 115, asserting that the Putting Students First Act is hampering attempts to find mutually agreed upon solutions.
Dena Morrison, the Rainbow District School Board’s vice-chair, said that besides limits on collective bargaining for unionized employees, Bill 115 also complicates matters at the board level. “It imposed conditions on the employer that we weren’t at the table to agree to,” Ms. Morrison said, adding that some of the provisions in Bill 115 “will make the operations of our schools somewhat challenging.”
Ms. Morrison said the act has undermined labour law, and the resulting job action from unionized employees at the board has put a greater strain on all staff. “Right now, the schools are operating pretty well as normal, but we continue to be concerned that if job actions increase, safety and security of students may be impacted,” she said.
The Rainbow District School Board is not alone either, according to Ms. Morrison, more than half of Ontario’s English public school boards have already written to the ministry to either repeal Bill 115 or rescind some of its regulations. At the Rainbow District School Board trustees voted five to one in favour of sending a letter to the minister of education requesting the bill be rescinded. Two members abstained from the vote due to personal conflicts of interest, while trustee Robert Kirwan voted outright against the motion.
“I voted to send the letter,” said Manitoulin Rainbow District School Board trustee Larry Killens.
“Speaking from my own personal point of view, to be clear not speaking for the board, I believe it is now probably in the interests of the teachers to let the December deadline come and have the province impose contracts,” said Mr. Killens, noting that the unions are taking the province to court over Bill 115. “I don’t think this will be an easy case for the province to win. If they don’t, the most likely thing that will happen is that their existing contracts will just roll over.”
OSSTF teachers were in a legal strike position on November 7 following a no board report announced by a conciliator. A no board report means the two sides are too far apart for there to be a reasonable hope of finding a mutually acceptable middle ground.
OSSTF president James Clyke noted that the union began the groundwork for negotiations back in June and negotiated through August, but union negotiators have essentially abandoned local talks due to the Rainbow District School Board’s position being essentially identical to the province’s memorandum of understanding template.
“We came to the board with a number of cost-saving options that we believe would have caused no more pain than the MOU,” said Mr. Clyke. “But they basically said no. They were inflexible with that entirely.”
The union’s provincial negotiating representatives then decided to move on to boards where there was a better chance of reaching an agreement to send to the minister.
The largest sticking point with the teachers has been the issue surrounding accumulated sick days. The proposal facing the teachers is that those teachers with less than 10 years in the system will lose their accumulated sick days, for most teachers this means they are essentially taking a significant financial hit—yet teachers with more than 10 years will have their accumulated sick days vested so they can keep them.
In either case, any sick days not used during the year following August 31 will be lost.
“The bottom line is that we are not willing to accept the terms of the OECTA agreement,” said Mr. Clyke. “It is completely unacceptable to us.”
Although Mr. Clyke indicated the tentative agreements going to the minister had been making him cautiously optimistic, the two parties seem to be too far apart to come to an agreement before the end of December deadline set out in Bill 115.
In addition to job actions listed in an Expositor story in last week’s edition, OSSTF is considering joining elementary school teachers in a series of rotating one-day work stoppages being conducted between December 10 and 21. Mr. Clyke was meeting with other union officials in Toronto on Monday to plot out further strategies to put pressure on the provincial government.
The Ontario Liberal Party is currently undergoing a leadership contest following the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty and a number of would-be premiers have indicated that they would revisit Bill 115 should they succeed, but with poll numbers showing the Progressive Conservatives in the lead to succeed the government in an election likely to be forced on the minority Liberals shortly after the new leader is chosen and the legislature resumes, labour peace in the public sector over the long term appears to be receding below the horizon of the New Year.