Ontario Progressive Conservatives are signalling they may support a controversial bill that would block teachers from striking or getting a pay raise this school year.
The Liberals plan to introduced the bill next week and need the support of either the Conservatives or the New Democrats to get it passed and prevent teachers from automatically getting expensive raises.
Opposition Leader Tim Hudak told reporters on Wednesday that he’d rather see a bill that freezes the wages of public sector workers, but that the Liberals’ plan may work as a starting point.
“If you get half a loaf, take it,” he said.
The Liberals have recalled the legislature two weeks early to introduce the bill. The New Democrats have warned that the bill may tread on bargaining rights and will likely lead to expensive and protracted legal battles with the unions.
In more than six months of negotiations, the relationship between Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government, the teachers’ unions and the school boards has turned sour as the province has sought to reduce a $15-billion deficit while preserving its flagship initiatives, such as full-day kindergarten and smaller primary classes.
The government has made the most in-roads with Catholic educators, both the unions and the school boards, who were rattled earlier this year by a chorus of anti-Catholic school sentiment that erupted during a debate over gay-straight alliances.
In July, the English Catholic teachers became to the first to sign a deal that freezes the pay of most teachers, delays experience-based pay increases for younger teachers, and cuts sick days.
The francophone teachers’ union has also signed the deal, but most of the province’s 70 remaining school boards have resisted, objecting to non-monetary items that would require them to hire teachers based on seniority and limit their control over diagnostic testing for students.
York’s Catholic school board on Thursday became just the second school board to reach a deal and promise labour peace for the fall.
“I am proud of our board of trustees for moving forward with this framework agreement,” York Catholic’s chair, Elizabeth Crowe, said in a statement. “York Catholic has always valued stability, which results in a high level of student achievement.”
Union leaders have accused the Liberals of overstating the likelihood of a strike to win support for the bill and for Liberal party candidates in upcoming by-elections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Although union leaders have said a strike is unlikely and that school will begin in September as usual, members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) have voted in favour of a one-day walk-out if the legislation is passed. At least one English Catholic bargaining unit is holding a strike vote this week, and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) will hold one starting next week.
Leaders for ETFO and OSSTF have said they understand the fiscal climate, and are willing to give up wage increases but have fought against cutting teachers’ sick days to just 10 a year. Currently, Ontario teachers get 20 sick days a year that are bankable for a pay-out upon retirement of up to $46,000.