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Canada End of Ontario teachers’ protests seen as goodwill gesture

Students arrive at Ogden Junior Public School on Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Extracurricular activities have resumed in Ontario's public elementary schools.

For the Globe and Mail/Matthew Sherwood

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario decision to end its protest against contracts imposed on its members, just weeks after advising members to continue boycotting extracurricular activities, has set off a flurry of speculation about what Premier Kathleen Wynne offered in return.

In fact, the union's climb-down was not so much the result of any government concessions as a prerequisite to them.

Government sources said Wednesday that the ETFO's about-face was attributable to recognition that Ms. Wynne is serious about rebuilding the tattered relationship with teachers that she inherited from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty. But they acknowledged that it was conveyed to the ETFO that a show of goodwill could pave the way for measures agreeable to their members.

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Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ms. Wynne stressed that there is "no new money" available for teachers upset about a freeze to cost-of-living increases, the end of the banking of sick days, and mandatory unpaid days off. An official noted, however, that there could be room for tinkering with how those cost-cutting measures have been applied, giving the ETFO more say than it had when a framework agreement reached with the province's Catholic teachers was forced on its members.

Continuing discussions could also set in place a more agreeable process for the next round of negotiations, and perhaps even begin shaping the contracts that will take effect when the current ones expire in 2014.

With the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation having moved last month to restore extracurriculars, and its continuing discussions with the government thus more advanced, the ETFO was at risk of being left out in the cold if it continued its protests. It also faced concerns about unpopular protests playing into the hands of the opposition Progressive Conservatives, who have vowed a stridently anti-union agenda if elected.

In advising its 76,000 members to resume participating in students' clubs, sports teams and other after-school activities, the ETFO's leadership said Tuesday night that the government has "demonstrated a commitment to dealing with concrete items."

Speaking to The Globe and Mail, union officials agreed with Ms. Wynne that some aspects of the current contract could be revised without costing the province any money, and speculated that the government might allow the ETFO to bargain with local school boards. "That isn't going to translate into anything unless there's some mechanism to have leverage at the table," said an ETFO source. "When you bargain without leverage, you really aren't playing an equal game."

Local union presidents are meeting with the ETFO's executive next Wednesday, and government sources caution that, until then, they won't know how fully services will resume.

Teachers began their protests in September when the Liberals introduced Bill 115, which dictated the terms of new deals. While OSSTF talks took place in the fall, at that time there was little contact between the government and the ETFO. And at the start of 2013, then-education minister Laurel Broten used her powers under the legislation to impose new contracts on both unions.

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After the Liberals chose Ms. Wynne as Mr. McGuinty's replacement in late January, both unions came to the table. She and her education minister, Liz Sandals, have struck a more conciliatory tone, and have discussed protecting teachers' bargaining rights by revamping, and possibly legislating, the negotiations process.

Sources said that Tony Dean, the former head of the Ontario Public Service whom Mr. McGuinty brought in to try to make peace in the fall, is playing a leading role in the current negotiations as well.

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