TORONTO – Contract talks between the Ontario government and the union representing the province’s public high school teachers appeared to be at a standstill Tuesday ahead of a possible one-day strike that could close many schools across Ontario.
During a last-minute news conference Tuesday evening, Education Minister Stephen Lecce called on the Ontario Secondary Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) to cancel strike action on Wednesday. The call came after he said his bargaining team had presented a new “framework” to negotiators for the OSSTF in a bid to keep all parties at the table.
But union president Harvey Bischof previously said the teachers had not been given anything new by a mediator, and no progress has been made for days.
“While we will stay here until the very end and do our very best, the signs are very discouraging at this point,” Bischof said.
Ontario’s public high school teachers have been without a contract since August and have said they will walk off the job for one day if an agreement isn’t reached by midnight Tuesday.
Some of the province’s largest school boards – including the Toronto District School Board and Peel District School Board, west of Toronto – have said they will be forced to close their high schools if the job action takes place.
Boards where OSSTF also represents education workers – like the Waterloo Region District School Board and Ottawa-Carleton District School Board – will close both high schools and elementary schools if a strike occurs.
The teachers are already conducting a work-to-rule campaign and say they are pushing back against government plans to increase class sizes and introduce mandatory e-learning courses.
Bischof said he is sympathetic to parents who will be inconvenienced by the possible closure of some schools, but the union is fighting government cuts that will impact the quality of education in the province.
“I can tell you that the long-term damage to the system, if we allow this government to continue to go down this destructive path, is far worse than a day lost to labour action,” he said.
Lecce said the main issue in the talks is compensation, with the government recently passing legislation to cap annual wage increases for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. The union is asking for inflationary increases, which would amount to about two per cent.
The minister said the government remains ready to bargain, but did not provide any further details of the new framework apparently offered on Tuesday.
“There’s a pathway to keep kids in class tomorrow,” Lecce said. “It’s the government’s aim to keep kids in class. Quite frankly, I think it’s unacceptable unions have opted to make this decision that keeps kids out of class tomorrow…. It only frustrates parents and hurts kids from an academic perspective.”
Lecce said the teachers’ union is choosing to escalate the talks and said governments of all political stripes have faced similar challenges over the past few decades.
But former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, who also once served as education minister, said the Progressive Conservatives made cuts to classrooms ahead of bargaining, hurting the government’s relationship with teachers.
“It’s been more than 20 years since there’s been a province-wide job action by OSSTF,” she said. “I think that speaks volumes. The last province-wide job action was under the (Progressive Conservative) Mike Harris government. The fact is, it’s not the same. This government declared war on teachers and support staff.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she knows the potential labour disruption will affect parents who are forced to find other child-care arrangements, but she thinks overall parents are more upset with the government.
“I would hope what happens tomorrow is a signal to the government,” Horwath said. “What I expect to see is parents supporting the teachers, to be frank.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also said he thinks parents agree with teachers taking the job action.
“If the government would reverse their cuts then we could have a good faith negotiation around salaries,” he said. “The government is trying to use compensation as a way to deflect from the real cuts to education.”