A Union Member Perspective on Education Sector Bargaining

This article by Guelph ETFO member Doug Cook appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on October 29, 2015.

Premier Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals 

 Premier Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals

Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne announced an income penalty for education workers who continue to participate in a legal strike action following Nov. 1. Behind her stood Education Minister and Guelph MPP Liz Sandals, face scowling.

Apparently Sandals is well aware of her gross failure on the education file. Sandals succeeded Laurel Broten as education minister in 2013. Broten had severely botched teacher negotiations when she introduced the infamous Bill 115. She then left Ontario politics. It's time for Sandals to follow Broten.

Broten's legacy of chaos is well known and the charter challenge to declare Bill 115 unconstitutional is ongoing. Sandals' legacy will also reflect labour unrest and union-busting tactics. Teacher collective agreements expired in August 2014 but bargaining didn't start under Sandals' watch until February when boards of education, represented by Ontario Public School Boards' Association, tabled deep contract strips.

To teachers' credit, they steadfastly opposed the elimination of class size maximums, erosion of professional autonomy and removal of objective hiring procedures. Sandals, on the other hand, seemed to openly admit to not understanding the issues and repeatedly said she was "perplexed."

To resist the Ontario Public School Boards' Association onslaught, teachers exercised their right to strike. Sandals responded with back-to-work legislation last May. She assured the public that May to September was plenty of time to settle agreements. In June, Sandals contemplated locking teachers out of schools. "The thing about locking out teachers is you also lock out children and school boards and the government, we are really committed to trying to keep the kids in the classroom," Sandals said, then reiterated, "We've got a long way to go before September." Sandals did not resume talks until Wynne held a meeting with union leaders on July 24.

By the end of August, tentative agreements, void of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association contract strips, were reached with two teacher unions — with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation, after 29 days of bargaining and with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, after 18 days. The government began negotiations with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario on Sept. 1. The smallest teacher union, AEFO (L'Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens), which represents Ontario's 10,000 French-language elementary and secondary teachers, reached agreement on Sept. 16 — after announcing an impasse on Sept. 14.

Meanwhile, in mid-September, education assistants, secretaries and custodians unionized by the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees commenced strikes. Principals were left as the only personnel not on strike in public elementary schools. On Sept. 11, school boards and the government suddenly announced to the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario that they were done bargaining despite the progress made in the previous seven days. They refused to schedule any more dates for bargaining. Instead, they used the same explosive tactic tried under Bill 115: The government attempted to impose a different union's agreement on the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. The elementary teachers' federation filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board and bargaining recommenced on Oct. 5 only to stall again. School boards did not accept the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario's suggestion to refer an item to binding arbitration and would not respond to the federation's most recent proposals. Sandals accused the elementary teachers' federation of putting talks on hold.

On Oct. 14, the Ontario Public School Boards' Association released confidential bargaining information to news media that breached previously agreed upon rules of conduct, a media blackout and common sense. The elementary teachers' federation filed its second unfair labour practice complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. While elementary teachers' federation President Sam Hammond decried the loss of trust and the Ontario Public School Boards' Association's disrespect, Sandals remained "confident that we can reach an agreement." Wynne defended the school boards' actions.

Both Wynne and Sandals were school board trustees for many years. Sandals was the president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association from 1998 to 2002. It is reasonable to assume they are not impartial. With each setback, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario took stock, then proceeded with sophisticated and measured incremental job action starting with administrative tasks, Education Quality and Accountability Office testing, report card comments and now extracurricular activities. Their steps were designed to get the parties back to the table and focused on settlement as counter moves to impulsive, reckless, tactics.

Now, they face, along with other education workers, pay cuts in November should their employers not agree to contract proposals. The deadline is arbitrary and the penalty is one-sided. I only hope education professionals continue to defend the democratic right to free collective bargaining. I also hope Sandals does the right thing: resign.

Kitchener resident Doug Cook is a teacher on a leave of absence from Willow Road Public School in Guelph.

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