TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford has not even named a new cabinet, fresh off his majority election victory, and one of the biggest challenges his new government will face is already staring him down.

Four of the five major education unions have taken the first step to start bargaining, ahead of their contracts expiring on Aug. 31. 

The notice of intent to bargain filed by the four unions requires the government to respond within 15 days with some potential dates for initial talks, but senior government sources say that won’t happen since the election was so recent and a cabinet has not been named.

“We want to make sure cabinet approves a very clear mandate,” one source said.

What that mandate is the sources couldn’t or wouldn’t yet say, but one of the government’s primary objectives is ensuring that the school year begins with no disruptions, they said, harkening back to pre-pandemic labour strife.

The government is eyeing early July to start discussions, but at least one union is pushing back on that timeline. The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 Ontario education workers, said it doesn’t agree to the delay and may take the issue to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

Regardless of the timing, the road ahead will be fraught and likely top of mind for Ford when mulling his pick for education minister.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the unions don’t know what to expect at the bargaining table this time, particularly since the Progressive Conservatives’ unpassed budget that served as their election platform largely ignored education.

“Highways were mentioned over 150 times and education was really barely mentioned at all, so it shows the priorities,” she said in an interview. 

“It’ll be, we’re guessing, something quite austerity based. And we’re looking to make sure that we have excellent working conditions and living conditions for our members.”

The Progressive Conservatives had a poor relationship with the unions over the previous four years, with teachers staging various strikes and work-to-rule campaigns during the last round of negotiations.

Bill 124, legislation that capped compensation increases for public sector workers, played a large role in the tensions but the government had also angered teachers by increasing class sizes and mandating two online courses for high school graduation. Ford’s first education minister also mused about cuts to full-day kindergarten.

Provisions of the controversial bill won’t apply to education workers this time – it covered a three-year period – unless Ford decides to bring in new wage restraint legislation. When asked about that possibility during the election campaign he said he would “negotiate fairly.”

The head of CUPE’s bargaining unit said salary increases and protecting jobs will be their priorities.

“It’s time to have some real conversations about how we are paying and how we are treating those folks who are frontline during a pandemic,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“I think there needs to be increases. It’s not about whether we want it, it’s a need at this point, a fundamental need for these workers.”

Education workers also saw years of wage freezes under the previous Liberal government and, combined with the Tory wage restraint that limited increases to one per cent a year, workers are falling behind as cost of living is increasing, Walton said.

“There needs to be some catch up,” she said.

“We’re hearing stories of people pulling out their pay stubs from like, five and six years ago, and they’re making no more now than they were then … We are having people say they can’t afford to put gas in the tank to go to work.” 

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association also filed its notice, writing in a statement that it is committed to an agreement that supports students, educators and families.

The union representing teachers in the French-language public and Catholic systems has filed its notice as well, saying it is troubled by the government encouraging virtual or distance learning.

“Add to that, among other things, the shortage of teaching staff, the often purely administrative requirements of government and school boards, and you have a fairly accurate picture of the challenges that our members and students face on a daily basis,” president Anne Vinet-Roy wrote in a statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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