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Ontario’s major education unions are renegotiating new contracts this fall – after the current ones expired at the end of August.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Contracts for all major education unions in Ontario expired at the end of August and it was widely expected to be a challenging round of bargaining with the Progressive Conservative government.

Premier Doug Ford has pleaded with the unions not to strike, but also sent a warning: “Don’t force my hand.” Education Minister Stephen Lecce has signaled that he wants to reach a “fair” deal and to avoid any disruptions for the province’s two million public school students. He issued a statement on Oct. 7 saying, “nothing matters more than students staying in classrooms without any disruptions to their school year.”

Ontario kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other province during waves of COVID-19, which led to worries about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students.

Prior to the pandemic, unions engaged in job action – ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes – as tensions with the government rose. They reached agreements with the province just as the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020 led to school closings.

The Globe and Mail looks at where each union is in its negotiations with the government and school boards:

CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU)

Represents: 55,000 education workers in the public, Catholic, English and French school systems across the province. Members include education assistants, school library workers, administrative assistants, custodians and early-childhood educators.

Current status: Support staff plan to walk off the job on Nov. 4 in defiance of a bill introduced by the provincial government that would impose a contract and ban their right to a legal strike. Ontario’s legislature started debate shortly after 5 a.m. on Tuesday as the province’s Progressive Conservative government sought to rush through the bill.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, described the government’s legislation as a “monstrous overreach.” He said the province was using a “nuclear option.” If the bill passes and support staff walk off the job, they would face fines of $4,000 a person each day, in addition to a $500,000 daily fine for the union.

CUPE said it would cover the costs.

Bargaining issues: OBSCU asked the province for annual raises of about $3.25 an hour, which amounts to roughly 11.7 per cent annually.

The government’s final offer to OSBCU increased wages slightly to 2.5 per cent each year for workers earning less than $43,000, and a 1.5-per-cent annual hike for those earning more.

The previous offer was a 2-percent increase each year over a four-year contract for those earning less than $40,000 and a 1.25per-cent wage hike for those earning more.

The union said that amounts to 40 to 67 cents an hour.

The union has also asked for more student supports, including an early-childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom. Under the current model, if a kindergarten class has fewer than 16 students, there is no requirement to have an early childhood educator in the room.

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO)

Represents: 83,000 members that include elementary teachers, occasional teachers, education-support personnel, professional-support personnel and early-childhood educators.

Current status: ETFO is in negotiations with the government. On Oct. 31, ETFO called off talks with the government for the day in a show of support for OSBCU.

Bargaining issues: The union has been vague about its concerns, but issues it has raised include class size caps, supports for special needs students and wage increases. Following a speech to delegates from across the province in August, president Karen Brown told reporters that educators were looking for “compensation that reflects the level of commitment that they invested during this pandemic.”

Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF)

Represents: About 60,000 members that include high-school teachers, occasional teachers, educational assistants, psychologists and speech-language pathologists.

Current status: OSSTF is in negotiations with the government, with scheduled dates through November.

Bargaining issues: The union has presented its opening offer to the government, but did not release any details. Karen Littlewood, OSSTF’s president, had previously indicated that an offer by the government to support staff of a 2-per-cent increase in wages per year was “not respectful” of the work done by education staff.

Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA)

Represents: About 45,000 members, including elementary, secondary and occasional teachers.

Current status: OECTA is before the Ontario Labour Relations Board because there wasn’t full agreement among the parties on what issues were to be discussed with the provincial government, and what should be dealt with locally. Provincial unions generally negotiate with the government on big-ticket items like salaries and benefits, and local issues, such as access to technology and training, would be negotiated between individual school boards and their unions.

Bargaining issues: Not clear as yet.

Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO)

Represents: About 12,000 members in French-language elementary and high schools from both Catholic and public school boards.

Current status: AEFO is meeting with the government.

Bargaining issues: AEFO says its issues include preparation time for teachers and wages, but it hasn’t been specific.

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