The next premier of Ontario should try to repair the provincial government’s relationship with schoolteachers and their unions, but the teachers must recognize that strenuous fiscal constraints will continue for the next few years. Whoever succeeds Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader – and whoever else may become premier, as leader of another provincial party – will still find that the cupboard is bare.
Bill 115, which imposed a set of collective agreements on school boards and teachers’ unions that had not agreed to a new agreement before the end of 2012, will be in effect only until the end of August, 2014 – about a year and a half away. The government, the school boards and the unions should start negotiating soon after the next premier takes office. But the consequences of the economic downturn of 2008 and of the generosity of the Liberal government toward Ontario’s education system – especially teachers’ salaries – will be essentially unchanged.
When they first took power, Mr. McGuinty and his colleagues were right to restore respect for teachers. The Premier was imprudent, however, to press ahead with smaller class sizes and full-day kindergarten even after a severe recession struck. The latter, now well under way to full implementation, may be difficult to reverse. Yet Mr. McGuinty is a pragmatic politician who has shown himself quite capable of changing course.
In October, the Premier obtained the prorogation of the Legislative Assembly, ostensibly in order to concentrate on negotiating collective agreements. With the teachers, this strategy was fruitless. On Monday, the Minister of Education, Laurel Broten expressed regret to The Globe’s editorial board that the government had little ability to communicate directly to the teachers’ rank and file. The legislature, however, is a public forum. Open parliamentary debate would have served the province better.
A comparatively small union, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association negotiated at length, engaged in give-and-take, within the government’s real fiscal constraints, and arrived at a compromise that accommodated a number of its members’ concerns. The government has now deployed its agreement with OECTA as kind of template, whether or not it suits other teachers’ unions. Fortunately, the history of labour relations has not come to an end, and larger unions – notably the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario – may yet grow wiser.