Ontario has bought labour peace with two of its teachers' unions – offering raises and guaranteeing to keep class size caps in place – in a bid to head off potentially damaging strikes just before the school year gets underway.
Education Minister Liz Sandals announced Tuesday she had reached a tentative agreement with the province's 34,000 English Catholic teachers just a few days after cutting a deal with English public high-school teachers.
After a year of negotiations, scattered strikes, back-to-work legislation and labour-board injunctions, the contracts suddenly materialized in a matter of days. They must still be ratified by teachers next month.
The province still faces possible job action from other education unions. But the deals with two unions could put added pressure on the others to settle.
They may also help Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government take a tough issue off the table as it fights to help elect its federal counterparts in October and faces battles on other fronts, including over its controversial plan to privatize Hydro One and introduce a new provincial pension system.
Ms. Wynne has taken on an unusually active role in the federal campaign for a sitting premier, frequently bashing Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for blocking Canada Pension Plan enhancement and accusing him of not providing enough funds for Ontario infrastructure, while encouraging Ontarians to support federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Ms. Wynne's effectiveness as Mr. Trudeau's surrogate would certainly be undermined, particularly on the left, if she found herself in a protracted fight with the province's teachers – particularly a strike.
Some teachers, for their part, have also signalled their intention to join the federal campaign. Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), told union members in an Ottawa speech last week that he intended to campaign against Mr. Harper, whom he accused of attempting to destroy unions.
Averting a job action this fall will give both Ms. Wynne and the teacher unions more time and political capital to devote to the federal election.
Defusing the teacher tension, however, comes at a price. An internal OSSTF memo, obtained by The Globe and Mail last week, indicated high school teachers stood to receive a 1.5-per-cent raise over two years, plus a 1-per-cent lump-sum payment. And Ms. Sandals suggested Tuesday the English Catholic teachers had also negotiated a pay hike.
"As you can anticipate, once unions think somebody got a pay raise, they'd like to have a pay raise, too," she said.
Ms. Sandals insisted the raises would be offset by cuts to other teacher benefits within the collective agreements – dubbed a "net-zero" deal by the government – but refused to say what those cuts would be. She said she might consider making them public if the deals are ratified.
"Ah, but sooner or later everything will be all done and then everybody will talk about the details. You just need patience," she told reporters before heading into a cabinet meeting at Queen's Park on Tuesday.
A key sticking point in the protracted negotiations, according to internal union documents, was the government's desire to remove class-size caps for high schools and give school boards more say in how teachers use their prep time. The teachers ultimately won the day on both issues.
Ann Hawkins, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, said the agreement came at 3 a.m. Tuesday after back-to-back late-night sessions.
The union's sticking points weren't wage-related, Ms. Hawkins said, relating instead to teachers' autonomy and workload, including decisions around when to administer "diagnostic" learning tests to students.
To avoid further work-to-rule action this fall, the Ontario government must still reach a deal with the 70,000 Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which withdrew some voluntary services in the spring.
The Canadian Union of Public Empoyees, which represents custodians, tradespeople, secretaries, early education workers and various other non-teaching staff within Ontario schools, only began bargaining this summer after a much longer delay than the teachers' unions. It has three bargaining dates set but will come up with a strike date this Saturday, before talks resume, said Terri Preston, chair of the bargaining committee. All types of strike threats, including a full walkout, are still on the table.
"We have a long way to go," she said.
Unlike the teachers unions,' CUPE says its top issues are wages and staffing levels. Union members have been under a pay freeze since 2011, and they saw staffing reductions this spring after a tough provincial education budget, said Ms. Preston.
"I'm not sure that we accept that it has to be net zero," she said. "I would say that what our proposal would be is that we need to maintain services in schools. So I'm not sure that we would be trading jobs for wage increases."