TORONTO – Elementary teachers and the Ontario government were close to a deal when the province’s negotiators suddenly tabled new proposals at the 11th hour, the head of the teachers’ union said Tuesday.
The two sides met last week for three long days of renewed contracts talks – their first since mid-December – but those negotiations broke off late Friday and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario escalated its strikes this week.
“Rather than keep kids in the classroom, which Education Minister (Stephen) Lecce says is his goal, this government is deliberately creating chaos in our public education system,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond.
ETFO had set last Friday as a deadline for a deal after which it would ramp up its strikes to twice weekly per board, including one provincewide walkout each week. The first of those is set for Thursday and Hammond said he understands it is a hardship for parents, students and educators.
“A withdrawal of service is our only means of putting pressure on the minister to stop the cuts, support our most vulnerable students and maintain Ontario’s world-class public education system.”
Lecce said Tuesday afternoon that the government has put forward “reasonable proposals” at the bargaining table, including a commitment to maintain full-day kindergarten.
“It is deeply disappointing parents are still seeing repeated escalation at the expense of our students to advance higher compensation, including more generous benefit plans,” he said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, Hammond insisted salary was not discussed at the table “for one minute over those three days.”
The minister had issued a statement after talks broke down Friday saying the union was prioritizing salary over protecting the education system, even after the government made what he called a “formal commitment” to one of ETFO’s priorities.
The union has been looking for a guarantee that the full-day kindergarten model will be protected, after the previous education minister opened the door to changes to the program. Lecce said Friday that the government had made that commitment in writing. But Hammond said it was not language that could be included in a collective agreement, rather it was shared with the union in a letter away from the bargaining table.
The two sides were close to an agreement on three or four key issues, including special education funding and hiring regulations for occasional teachers, but were at a standstill on other issues, Hammond said.
All four major teachers’ unions have been without contracts since Aug. 31, and bargaining is only ongoing with the union representing French teachers. High school teachers have not had talks with the government since Dec. 16, and English Catholic teachers had one day of negotiations Monday after talks broke off last month, but nothing further is scheduled.
All unions are engaged in some form of job action.
Thousands of students were out of class Tuesday as the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association held its second provincewide strike, and high school and elementary teachers were on strike in select boards.
ETFO targeted the Avon Maitland, Durham, Hastings-Prince Edward, Lambton Kent, Peel, Rainbow, Thames Valley and Upper Grand school boards Tuesday, as well as Campbell Children’s School Authority, and is planning a provincewide strike on Thursday.
High school teachers were holding strikes at the Lakehead, Lambton Kent, Thames Valley, Waterloo Region, York Region, Halton and Kawartha Pine Ridge school boards.
Unions are asking for wage increases of around two per cent to keep up with inflation, but the government passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. The teachers’ unions and several others are fighting the law in court, arguing it infringes on collective bargaining rights.
Teachers’ unions, particularly the three representing secondary teachers, are opposed to class size increases and mandatory e-learning requirements imposed by the government. The Tories announced last March that average secondary school class sizes would jump from 22 to 28 and four e-learning courses would be mandatory for graduation.
The province has since scaled back those increases, to an average class size of 25 and two e-learning courses, but the unions say that’s not good enough.
© 2020 The Canadian Press