TORONTO – The Ontario government is attempting to close an ugly round of bargaining as it restarts talks with the only remaining teachers’ union without a contract, and an expert says the COVID-19 pandemic may create a path to labour peace.
University of Toronto professor and former deputy education minister Charles Pascal says the unprecedented crisis, and the dramatic response that has altered daily life, have also changed the tone coming from the government.
Pascal said Premier Doug Ford’s government has abandoned the inflammatory rhetoric and divisive public bargaining it had engaged in with the province’s teachers’ unions since last summer, focusing instead on calm, clear pandemic response.
That new approach appears to have had an effect on the once-turbulent talks that led to near-daily walkouts and strikes, closing schools just weeks ago.
“It takes the pressure off so that people can sit at the table, quietly, while attention is being paid elsewhere,” he said. “All of a sudden the government wants to appear genuine about being fair in every direction.”
In recent weeks, the province has secured tentative agreements with three of four teachers’ unions that had been without contracts since August.
On Thursday, the government returned to the bargaining table with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which is the last union without a deal.
But with schools now shuttered until at least May because of the pandemic, and the government and teachers working together to help students learn from home, Pascal said the tension built up between all parties appears to have diminished.
“There’s a kind of fairness that’s arisen on the scene that’s led to deals with the other federations,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday the government is ready to work with the OSSTF to reach an agreement.
“The time is now to drive deals with all remaining union partners,” Lecce said in a statement. “We will remain a positive and driving force at the bargaining table, advancing the priorities of parents and students.”
OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said the union, which has been engaged in only informal discussions with the government since December, is also ready to get back to the bargaining table.
He acknowledged that the pandemic has affected talks, even on a logistical level, with all future bargaining taking place via teleconference.
“Negotiations never happen in a vacuum, they happen in an environment,” Bischof said. “The environment has an effect on bargaining. What exactly that will be isn’t something I’m prepared to pre-judge.”
Bischof said he’s not concerned that the public support he felt the teachers had built over the past few months has disappeared.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m cognizant of the reality within which we find ourselves. I have to tell you, it’s the reality in which my members are … doing their very best to provide continuity of learning for students, have reached out to students and are worried for them and their well-being.”
In recent weeks, the province has reached agreements with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens.