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How the dispute between Ontario and teachers’ unions could evolve

Battle over public education in Ontario escalates
Education minister Stephen Lecce reacts to the ongoing teacher strikes in Ontario and explains how he thinks job action reached this point.

This week marks a busy one for teachers’ unions engaging in job action.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) — which represents over 60,000 teachers and educational workers — is holding a one-day strike at nine school boards in the province on Tuesday.

This week the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) — which represents 83,000 teachers and educational workers in the public elementary system — has planned for one-day walkouts at select school boards all five days this week.

Ontario education minister announces childcare credit for families affected by education strikes
Ontario education minister announces childcare credit for families affected by education strikes

For its part, members of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) — which represents 45,000 teachers teaching Kindergarten to Grade 12 in publicly funded English Catholic schools — are participating in a one-day, province-wide strike on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) — which represents 10,600 elementary and secondary teachers in Ontario’s French school system — continues its work-to-rule campaign, which just began last week.

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So where do things go from here? Here are the possible outcomes.

A negotiated agreement

The four teachers’ unions and the government all say their desired outcome is a negotiated agreement, respectively, that addresses the key labour issues at hand, ends job action and results in a new collective agreement.

READ MORE: Ontario’s 4 teachers’ unions are engaged in job actions. Here’s what they’re fighting for

Leadership figures at all four unions reiterated to Global News this week that they want a deal. Global News sent a list of questions to Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office for this article on Monday and was directed to his remarks during an afternoon media availability with reporters.

“Our negotiators have been tasked with a clear direction from myself to continue to demonstrate … that we want to sit down and we want to get to a negotiated settlement,” Lecce said.

All parties involved have an ‘obligation’ to end teachers’ strike: Stephen Lecce
All parties involved have an ‘obligation’ to end teachers’ strike: Stephen Lecce

But the four teachers’ unions all say they’re “far” from that point.

Two unions ⁠— the OSSTF and ETFO ⁠— say their last bargaining session with the province was more than a month ago and no dates have been set to meet again.

“We are unfortunately a long, long ways away from an agreement,” OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said in a phone interview on Monday, adding later that “the pathway to a deal remains open.”

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“Both parties are still very far apart in regards to some of the key issues that are still remaining, that are still outstanding on the table,” ETFO First Vice-President Karen Campbell said Tuesday.

READ MORE: Ontario teachers strike: Are you allowed to take your child to work with you?

The OECTA’s last bargaining session with the government was on Jan. 9 and it remains unclear when they will meet again, President Liz Stuart said Monday.

The AEFO also said it’s “far” from an agreement with the province but will return to the table on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30, according to President Rémi Sabourin.

Lecce said Monday he thinks further dates with the other three unions can be “booked.”

I think there’s still a pathway to meet with our other union partners to get a deal,” he said.

The unions and the government are pointing fingers at each other for why the bargaining process has stalled.  Speaking to reporters, Lecce made the push once more for private mediation as a means of moving ahead.

Lecce: It’s ‘high-time’ for teachers to consider a mediated settlement
Lecce: It’s ‘high-time’ for teachers to consider a mediated settlement

So far, the parties have worked with a Ministry of Labour mediator. While he said the government is “grateful for her work,” Lecce argued that “it’s time … to invoke private mediation.” He stated that it worked in a recent labour dispute with education workers represented by CUPE.

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“I think that’s the way forward when it comes to forcing all parties, including the government, to get to a position where we’re in a sweet spot to get a deal,” Lecce said.

Bischof and Stuart argued they don’t see how private mediation could make a difference.

“We have a highly experienced, expert mediator in place. The issue is not the mediator — it’s the positions the government has on the table,” Bischof wrote in response to a follow-up question after Lecce’s comments.

Escalated strike action

If the status quo of stalled negotiations continues, teachers’ unions may opt to escalate job action, according to Gilles LeVasseur, a professor in business and law at the University of Ottawa, whose expertise includes labour law.

The unions won’t talk about their next steps in detail, but their senior executives said the established bargaining process allows for them to escalate job action and signaled they’re not ruling anything out.

Beyond work-to-rule campaigns and rotating strikes, further job action could include a one-day province-wide walkout or a longer strike, LeVasseur said.

READ MORE: Strikes closes all Ontario Catholic schools, some public elementary and high schools

OECTA already escalated to a one-day province-wide strike on Tuesday, after kicking off an administrative work-to-rule campaign on Jan. 13. The OSSTF, meanwhile, has been holding weekly, one-day rotating strikes across the province since Dec. 4.

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Both OECTA and OSSTF are taking a hiatus from job action during secondary schools’ exam period. Their presidents say they’ll take the pulse once more after exams are finished.

“Those decisions [about further job action] are still sort of on hold. We haven’t finalized them yet,” Stuart said.

“Our strategy will be determined very much by the environment we find ourselves in,” Bischof said, noting that a day-long or longer strike are both “possibilities.”

Is this the most contentious school strike Ontario has seen?
Is this the most contentious school strike Ontario has seen?

The ETFO began rotating, one-day strikes this week. Beyond that, Campbell said she can’t say what will happen.

“We will evaluate where we need to go to put pressure on this government to return to the bargaining table,” Campbell said, adding that ETFO members “don’t want to be on strike.”

For the AEFO, “everything is on the table,” according to Sabourin.

“At this point, we’re definitely not shying away from maybe going off to a rotating strike or a full withdrawal of the services from all our members if nothing concrete comes out [of the talks],” Sabourin said.

Back-to-work legislation

In the event of a strike, the government has the right to draft and pass back-to-work legislation — essentially a law designed to get striking workers back on the job.

The former Liberal government went this route in 2015 during a strike by high school teachers, after an arm of the Ontario Labour Relations Board advised the province that the school year was in jeopardy for some boards.

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The provincial government also legislated an end to a strike by Ontario college faculty in 2017 and tried to once more with a long strike at York University in 2018. The Ford government ended up finishing the job shortly after forming government.

READ MORE: Some Ontario parents say they will donate daycare strike subsidy back to teachers, education

How exactly the outstanding contract issues would get resolved through back-to-work legislation would depend on whether the government writes solutions into the bill. Alternatively, such legislation could mandate compulsory arbitration “that will actually define what is the outcome,” LeVasseur said.

In the context of the current job action by teachers’ unions, LeVasseur said a government would typically pursue back-to-work legislation after a “full, provincial-wide strike” has lasted longer than a week — not during work-to-rule campaigns and rotating strikes.

There has to be a certain degree of necessity, urgency to actually behave with that special legislation,” he said.

“You can’t just come up and pass the legislation and block people’s right to negotiate. It’s when the hardships are so intense that the state needs to intervene to protect the interests of public security or public safety or the interests of the system.”

Ontario Education Minister says teacher strikes hurt kids
Ontario Education Minister says teacher strikes hurt kids

In many ways, back-to-work legislation is “the worst case scenario” for OSSTF members and the idea of arbitration isn’t “very attractive” either, Bischof said.

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“The best possible outcome of this is a negotiated collective agreement that both sides willingly sign on to,” he said.

“That’s what creates goodwill in the system. That’s what creates stability in the system.”

Would the government lock teachers out?

In particularly acrimonious labour disputes, an employer could go the route of locking out the unionized employees with which it’s butting heads.

But in the context of a dispute with teachers, a lockout would be “very rare,” LeVasseur said, adding that it would transfer “the burden” onto families and students and would make the government look unpopular.

“People, what they want is a government that resolves issues. They’re not saying that you got to just give in to the unions, but people want a government that can actually propose solutions and move ahead with the file,” LeVasseur continued.

“By putting a lockout, it’s the wrong approach that should never be taken when you’re dealing with teacher strikes unless there’s really very wrong conduct or behaviours [on the] part of the teachers or the unions. If it’s not the case, you need to keep the door open.”

READ MORE: Where are Ontario teachers striking next?

Bischof agreed that a lockout of teachers would be “extremely rare” and that the government, in doing so, would put itself in “an enormously difficult political position.”

“The government would have to — or school boards would have to — put themselves in the position of saying and wanting to publicly argue that our demands are so outrageous that it’s worth jeopardizing students’ school year.”

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Global News’ coverage of the job actions by Ontario teachers is continuing. For our latest online coverage, click here.

-With files from Global News and The Canadian Press