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Ontario’s English public high school teachers have approved a proposal to use binding arbitration, if needed, to reach a new contract with the government.

That means there will be no strikes or lockouts because any items that cannot be agreed on at the bargaining table will be sent to a third-party arbitrator.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said in an email statement on Wednesday night that the union’s members voted overwhelming in favour of the proposal.

“Now we have the opportunity to bypass traditional bargaining pathways to secure a fair collective agreement,” she said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he was “pleased” that members voted in favour of the proposal and that it would allow students to focus on their learning.

“We came together to put 400,000 English public high school students first, and as a result, a student who started high school last year will now graduate in three years without the threat of strikes,” he said.

“This is a significant step forward in providing stability for high school students. I believe strongly that every student deserves this certainty.”

Under the approved proposal, bargaining will continue until October 27, and any items left unresolved will be sent to an arbitrator.

The three other teachers’ unions – the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens - said their items would not be addressed through binding arbitration.

ETFO president Karen Brown said last month that binding arbitration was not a “viable” option given some of the issues her union wants addressed in bargaining. Instead, the union applied for conciliation and is holding strike votes, starting this month.

There were concerns expressed in some quarters about OSSTF’s proposal for binding arbitration. Ahead of the vote, the Toronto high school teachers’ bargaining unit sent a memo to its members that it opposed that pathway to resolve issues. The local unit said that it had concerns about eliminating the union’s right to strike or take job action, and “to voluntarily give up that right has the potential to set a dangerous precedent for education workers and the entire labour movement.” The aim, the local stated, was to not direct its members on how to vote but to share its concerns.

The contracts for all of Ontario’s education unions, including teachers’ unions, expired last August.

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