Ontario teacher unions say they expect labour peace all fall — and are hoping for all year.
While the support staff union is already exchanging offers with the provincial government — and has now asked for a conciliator while also planning a strike vote — the province’s educators are in the early stages of bargaining. Still, they say they expect months of labour peace.
While not as far along as CUPE, teacher union leaders have also not been as outspoken. They’ve struck a more conciliatory tone publicly when it comes to bargaining, despite what’s expected to be a tough round of talks given inflation following four years of imposed wage restraints.
“There is going to be stability and consistency and our members are looking forward to engaging with their students for the entire year,” said Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Karen Brown, saying she expects a normal fall, and beyond.
“We don’t want (disruption),” she said in an interview. “And I think parents can rest assured that our members are committed to in-person learning … and they’re hoping that we’ll be working at the negotiations table in good faith to keep members and students in the classroom.”
She said if negotiations continue into December, “and we’ve hit an impasse and there has not been any movement” then it would be time to look at “getting a mandate from our members to engage in job action.”
However, she added, “it’s not our place now.” And while she would not rule out job action in the future, she noted that members were taking part in rotating strikes in the last round of negotiations, just before the pandemic hit.
“For us to automatically now re-engage, that’s not a good strategy for us and our members,” Brown added. “No one wants to walk the picket line. It’s a last measure.”
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said parents don’t need to worry about labour disruptions in the short-term.
“We’re excited to be back in the schools with students seeing (teachers) face-to-face,” she said. “We’re still concerned about COVID and not really having any restrictions in place. But other than that, it’s going to be business as usual as much as it can be.”
She said while things have been heating up between the government and CUPE’s school boards’ bargaining unit, teachers are not a part of that. CUPE represents 55,000 support workers, but not at every school board.
“Were committed to being at the table bargaining, and waiting to see what the government is going to present to us at the table because we haven’t even had that yet,” she said.
During the last round of bargaining, education unions were engaged in rotating strikes and other job action. When the pandemic hit, those that hadn’t reached collective agreements did so amid the chaos of wider shutdowns.
Whether strikes would be allowed is unknown, given Education Minister Stephen Lecce has repeatedly said he expects school to be a normal experience for kids all year, with field trips and extracurricular activities. He has not ruled out using back-to-work legislation if strikes are called.
But “my hope is that we will get a deal with all the teacher and education worker unions for the single purpose of providing stability for families, so that they can be sure their kids are going to stay in school and focus on learning, recovery, and other mental and physical health,” he told the Star in an interview.
“The government will do whatever is necessary to ensure kids are in school. But I do believe by working together, focusing on children … we can get a deal.”
Extracurricular activities are voluntary, and teacher unions say their members are free to run them if they wish.
Stephanie Ross, director of McMaster’s school of labour studies, said this round of bargaining is “both typical and atypical” but that issues that were unresolved when the pandemic hit, such as wages and working conditions, still exist and may have been exacerbated since.
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She said the move by CUPE to file for conciliation is “to try and move the process forward … and it’s often not until the clock starts ticking on a potential strike or lockout that the parties get really serious because there are stakes involved.”
She said a strike poses issues for both sides. But for support staff unions like CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, the wage cap legislation that limited salary increases to one per cent a year over the past three years has hit morale, she said.
The government has offered support staff who earn less than $40,000 a year a two per cent raise each year over four years, and those making more a 1.25 per cent annual increase.
CUPE is asking for a $3.25 hourly raise for all workers, as well as moving all workers to the top of wage grids.
Workers earn an average of $39,000 a year, but that includes part-timers. Among full-timers, an educational assistant in the Kawartha-Pine Ridge school board makes just under $35,000 a year, while a caretaker in the York Region public board earns about $48,000.
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, said she’s eager to get a deal given contracts expired Aug. 31 — as they did for all education unions — because for her members, job security has also expired.
“This is why we filed for conciliation,” she said, adding the union would like additional bargaining days beyond the handful of upcoming ones starting Friday Sept. 16.
“… This is people’s livelihoods; it’s important … we’re really hoping that the conciliation officer can maybe get a date earlier than that even just to have an introductory ‘hey, listen, what can we do?’ ”
Ross said for support staff, there’s a sense of “catch-up militancy” because they are the lowest paid in the system, and feel they’ve been underpaid for awhile, and “that’s creating a sense of resolve” along with current cost-of-living concerns.
When it comes to teachers, Ross said they will have a tougher time “making the case on the salary front.”
“So the salary issue might not be the issue that is as front and centre in those negotiations as working conditions, workload, staffing levels and class sizes (are),” she said.
Ontario teachers earn an average of almost $95,000, plus benefits.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, which is also in bargaining talks with the province and unions, said “people are just really anxious to have their students or their kids in what feels like a normal year” and there is heightened anxiety because of negotiations.
Brown said “no one wants that instability. Our members are looking for as much stability as parents are” and along with wage increases her union will be looking for smaller class sizes, as well as more resources for vulnerable students.
Unlike CUPE, the elementary teachers’ union will not engage in open bargaining, where all proposals are posted online for members and the public to see — which was used by the secondary school teachers’ union in 2019-20.
“That’s not part of our strategy,” she said.
Lecce said CUPE is “on a path to a potential strike in the fall, which I believe to be unacceptable and, frankly, unacceptable to all families in the province.”
“I want them to remind themselves that kids need to come first,” Lecce said.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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