Contract talks between Ontario’s high-school teachers, the province and its public school boards have stalled before they’ve even begun, says the union representing the educators.
Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof said Thursday that the parties disagree over what to negotiate at both central and local tables which has prevented the start of substantive bargaining.
Mr. Bischof said the school boards want too many issues bargained at the central table, which will slow down talks. Those discussions, the union argues, should be dealt with in local talks.
The dispute will now need to be settled by the province’s labour board on Aug. 22, with a decision expected in September.
“We believe that the only things that should be bargained centrally are essentially big ticket items, big cost items like salaries, like the cost of health and dental benefits, like staffing,” he said. “The rest of it should be left to local school boards to negotiate.”
Contracts for teachers and education workers at the province’s publicly funded schools expire at the end of August and the Progressive Conservative government had said it wanted to start negotiations early.
This round of negotiations is expected to be difficult and unions and school boards have criticized the government’s recent moves to increase class sizes for Grade 4 and higher, mandate e-learning courses and reduce per-student funding to boards.
The moves are part of the government’s efforts to constrain public sector wage increases as it tries to eliminate an $11.7-billion deficit.
Mr. Bischof said his members are feeling “very anxious” about the labour negotiations in light of the government’s policy direction.
“Until we see how those proposals are received by the other side it’s just impossible for me to say,” he said.
Mr. Bischof also said the government has delayed discussions at multiple points and refused to follow the union’s advice to streamline the negotiation process. That inaction, he added, has prevented the parties from reaching a deal before the start of the new school year.
“Had they followed the steps we recommended, maybe we could have gotten there,” he said. “Now, there’s absolutely no way. What it means is we’ll begin the new school year under the terms and conditions of the old collective agreement.”
Ontario Public School Boards’ Association spokesman T.J. Goertz said boards respect the union’s right to trigger the dispute resolution system.
“This doesn’t mean we are heading toward disruption,” he said, adding that the school boards and the Crown continue to meet at the bargaining table with other education sector unions.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has called on all parties to reach a deal as soon as possible “to provide predictability and confidence to parents, students and educators alike.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the stalled talks are a symptom of the overall direction the government has set ahead of negotiations.
“There are better ways to get this done,” she said.