The Ontario government has passed major reforms to its collective bargaining system for teachers and support staff in a bid to avoid a repeat of the labour battle that threw the province's schools into turmoil two years ago.
Bill 122, which was held up for months by the opposition Progressive Conservatives, passed Tuesday morning by a margin of 59 to 34 after the New Democrats sided with the governing Liberals to vote in favour.
"This is going to make it a whole lot easier for everybody because we know the rules," Education Minister Liz Sandals said after the vote. "I think it would be everybody's intent to get on with the bargaining as quickly as possible."
The new law sets out a process where some aspects of future collective agreements will be negotiated centrally, between the province, the unions and the school boards, while other elements will be dealt with locally by different school boards and union locals.
Previously, there was no formal process for centralized bargaining, meaning a different process was improvised for every round of negotiations, which caused confusion.
The need for a better system became obvious during the dispute between the province and teachers' unions in 2012, which ended with the government imposing a contract that included a pay freeze. The chaos blew back on the Liberals when teachers withdrew extracurricular services. There were further fears that the teachers, who have long been part of the Liberals' electoral coalition, would abandon the party en masse.
Ms. Sandals said she wants to start bargaining soon, rather than waiting until the current agreements expire at the end of August. It will take some time for the school boards to put negotiating teams in place, she said, but once that's done, she wants to sit down and start talking.
"I am not waiting until September. As long as I am in this seat, I will try and expedite it as much as possible," she said.
Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, cheered the development, saying his organization wants more stability in schools. "The passage of Bill 122 will be the first step in seeing this become a reality," he said.
Despite the new process, both the government and the unions warned that negotiations will be tough. The province is staring down an $11.3-billion deficit and has little financial room to manoeuvre on labour contracts.
"We still have this nasty detail called the provincial deficit that we have to worry about – so [the legislation] doesn't make the underlying fiscal situation any easier, the context is still there," Ms. Sandals said.
Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers' Federation, said Bill 122 helps by putting in a badly needed collective bargaining structure, but it won't necessarily mean a smooth round of negotiations.
"The structure is only one part of the bargaining process," he said in an interview Tuesday. "If the government maintains its austerity agenda, and insists on further cuts in the education sector, negotiations will not be smooth."
The Tories unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation to make it harder for teachers to stop performing extracurricular activities – such as coaching sports teams or running school clubs – as part of a job action. Under the Tories' proposed changes, such "work-to-rule" tactics would have been counted as strike action.
"We're going into a very tough round of negotiations: There's a huge deficit and the money that's been allocated to school boards to undergo those negotiations is limited," PC education critic Rob Leone said. "The prospect for labour action is very high. We want to make sure that when that happens, the extracurricular activities are protected to the greatest extent possible."
The Tories slowed down the passage of the bill, and ultimately decided to vote against it when the Liberals and the NDP would not adopt their proposal on extracurricular activities.