With his plan to reconvene his province’s minority Legislature next week, and introduce a bill to impose new contracts on teachers if they do not voluntarily reach deals before then, Premier Dalton McGuinty is trying to place Ontario’s opposition parties in a Catch-22. If they vote for the contract, they risk giving credibility to Mr. McGuinty’s cost-cutting plans, and will have more difficulty criticizing them in future. If they block it, Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals will cite the ensuing chaos as a reason for voters to give them back their majority government in a pair of by-elections the following week.
Politically motivated though this manoeuvring may be, there is also a bottom-line imperative – enough that the provincial Progressive Conservatives, who can be expected to run in the next provincial election on an aggressive cost-cutting agenda, should hold their noses and let the bill pass.
As PC Leader Tim Hudak has argued, the contracts favoured by the Liberals do not do enough to get wages onto a sustainable footing, as Ontario seeks to eliminate its large deficit. Their one significant long-term saving would be to eliminate the banking and cashing-out of sick days. But they would not change the “salary grid” – a system that allows younger teachers to move fairly quickly toward the highest pay level, regardless of merit.
What the contracts would achieve, however, would be to limit debt accumulation over the next two years by freezing cost-of-living increases, and requiring all teachers to take three unpaid days off. Alternatively, if new contracts are not signed or legislated, existing ones will roll over into September. That would mean significant pay increases that would either put the province deeper in the red, or risk major labour strife in schools if the government subsequently attempted to claw them back.
To legislate some austerity measures next week would hardly preclude more ambitious ones down the road. After dealing with the immediate cost pressures, both the Liberals and the Tories – and for that matter the provincial New Democrats, who are seeking to present themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers – should explain how they would get more value out of teachers’ wages in the long run.