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Teachers of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario wave to honking cars as they participate in a full withdrawal of services strike in Toronto on Jan. 20, 2020. ETFO had asked the government to boost funding to its benefits plan, which is under pressure from inflationary costs and demand.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

As labour strife threatens to close all Ontario schools for the first time on Friday, funding of public elementary teachers’ benefits remains a sticking point after the government told union negotiators that any increase would force cuts to special education teaching supports.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the largest education union with 83,000 members, had asked the government to boost funding to its benefits plan, which is under pressure from inflationary costs and demand. The Globe and Mail has learned the union had initially asked for a 7-per-cent increase, but the government was offering around 4 per cent during the bargaining process.

Then late Friday evening last month, the last day of renewed contract discussions, it changed direction. Initially, government negotiators had offered less than half of the funding negotiated in a previous contract for teaching supports in special education or other learning needs. The fund was about $89-million over two years. Government negotiators said they would consider increases to their initial offer as long as the union abandoned its benefits-funding proposal, according to a bulletin sent to ETFO members this month.

According to government and union sources, who were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, benefits funding is one of the key issues on the table. Figures obtained by The Globe showed that a 6-per-cent increase in benefits funding for ETFO teachers would cost about $115-million over three years.

“ETFO is not asking for money for a richer benefit plan or to change benefit levels. ETFO is just asking for enough money to sustain the benefit plan at current levels,” the union said in an e-mail statement.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that “despite having among the most generous benefits packages available, teacher unions continue to insist on significant taxpayer dollars going into these plans.”

He added: "As we have made clear, the government’s position is that additional dollars in education should be flowing to promoting student success and well-being, not to augmenting already generous benefit plans.”

ETFO’s benefits plan is run by an arm’s-length trust that was negotiated in a previous round of bargaining under the former Liberal government.

All benefit plans in the education sector were transferred from school boards to health trusts, because the government at the time believed it would provide consistency and lower costs over the long run, according to a source connected to previous negotiations. Further, all trusts were created with different funding amounts. For example, the government contributes $5,100 per full-time teaching position for ETFO, whereas the high-school teachers’ union receives about $5,500 per full-time position.

Unlike the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation benefits plan, ETFO negotiated a plan where members did not have to co-pay, according to the government. That means the province fully funds it, and those familiar with the plan say it has been in some financial difficulty. One of the main stressors on the plan has been that a teacher on maternity leave continues to be funded in the plan, but the long-term supply teacher is not, but receives coverage.

ETFO said in its statement that the money “under dispute that is required to sustain the plan is relatively modest. The real issue here is that the government engaged in collaborative bargaining for two days – Jan. 29 and 30, and then offered ETFO an impossible choice” between special education funding and maintaining member benefits at existing levels.

Renewed talks between ETFO and the government broke down late last month, resulting in the union escalating its strike action. In a note to its members, ETFO said the government proposed renewing less than half the funding for teaching positions to support special education students, Indigenous students, at-risk students and English-language learners.

“On Friday evening [the last day of bargaining], government negotiators indicated they would consider increasing their monetary offer for priority funding and special education funding, but only if ETFO would abandon its proposal regarding benefit funding,” the bulletin read.

ETFO and the other three main teachers’ unions in the province are involved in some type of job action, from work-to-rule to one-day walkouts. Two unions – the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens – are scheduled for one day of bargaining on Wednesday with the government.

The four unions plan to stage the first-ever provincewide strike on Friday, shutting down all publicly funded schools across the province. The strike would be held on the same day the Ontario Progressive Conservative party begin its annual policy convention in Niagara Falls, Ont. It is expected that union members in Niagara will be picketing outside the convention on Friday, with a bigger protest being planned for Saturday.