TORONTO — The first sign of potential progress in more than a month in contract talks between elementary teachers and the province emerged Tuesday, as looming strike escalation threatens to shut schools twice a week.
The government-appointed mediator called the two sides back to the table Tuesday for talks Wednesday — the first negotiations since Dec. 19.
“We look forward to the opportunity to negotiate to reach a voluntary settlement that ends the union-led escalation that is hurting so many students,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
“Our hope is the union will come to the table with realistic proposals that prioritize student success over compensation demands.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it is optimistic the government will engage in meaningful bargaining.
“Open exploratory talks with the Ford government’s negotiators must include a mandate to remove further cuts, increase supports for students with special needs, preserve the current kindergarten model with a teacher and designated early childhood educator, and maintain fair and transparent hiring practices,” president Sam Hammond said in a statement.
If no deal is reached by Friday, ETFO plans to stage a provincewide strike once a week — with the first one set for Thursday, Feb. 6 — and each board where it has members will be hit by a one-day rotating strike as well.
Ontario’s English Catholic teachers also announced Tuesday they will hold a provincewide strike next Tuesday, Feb. 4. It will be the second such action by the union since negotiations broke down earlier this month.
OECTA president Liz Stuart said she knows Ontarians are growing impatient, but the teachers can’t let the government wear them down and accept cuts.
“Strike action is tough for everyone, but it is a sacrifice we need to make to show the government we will not be deterred in our efforts to protect what we have worked so hard to build,” Stuart said in a statement.
The Ministry of Labour-appointed conciliator has said the two sides are too far apart to make negotiations worthwhile, Stuart said.
“The government cannot claim our association has not been flexible,” she wrote. “As far back as October, we have been making creative and forward-thinking proposals that should have satisfied all parties. But the government’s negotiators have refused to move, insisting they have no authority from their political leaders to reach an agreement that does not include deep cuts that take valuable resources out of the classroom.”
Teachers’ unions, including OECTA, 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.
Lecce has framed compensation as the key issue for all teachers’ unions.
Unions are asking for wage increases around two per cent to keep up with inflation, but the government passed legislation last year capping wage increases for all public sector workers to one per cent for three years. The teachers’ unions and several others are fighting it in court, arguing it infringes on collective bargaining rights.
All four major teachers’ unions are engaged in some form of job action, from work-to-rule campaigns to rotating strikes. They have been without contracts since Aug. 31.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2020.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press