Last September, with B.C. teachers on strike and children out of school for five weeks, parents on the West Coast might have looked enviously to Ontario.
Back then, new bargaining legislation out of Queen's Park had been designed in a consensus-based process with unions. Premier Kathleen Wynne had just won a majority government with the support of teachers.
Now, with one Ontario school board's strike entering its sixth week, B.C.'s experience is starting to look familiar. Ontario union leaders say they learned from watching their western counterparts get through their roughest patch in decades. On Friday, Ms. Wynne threatened to bring in back-to-work legislation to save the school year in three districts – a tool that has been used routinely in British Columbia, but very rarely in Ontario.
Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, says he is prepared for relations to sour further, and will have options if they do.
"This thing we are going through right now, this could, depending on what happens in the next few weeks, could seriously damage that relationship," he said.
Mr. Elliott said he compares notes with the president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, speaking at least once a month, and he attended rallies last June in B.C.
The dangers of financial drain was one lesson learned for B.C. teachers in their record-breaking strike, which lasted months after beginning at the end of last school year.
Union coffers, depleted from years-long court challenges, ran dry early in the strike and teachers stopped receiving strike pay. According to some estimates, teachers who lost $5,000 to $10,000 on the picket lines won't recover that money through the entire span of the new six-year contract.
In Ontario, the OSSTF doesn't face the same risk, especially because only three of its locals are fully on strike, with two more on administrative strike but still teaching. A skeleton strike plan was decided last May at a special union assembly, ensuring financial security.
"The delegates at that assembly unanimously endorsed a plan – a plan to ensure that we, collectively, take care of one another in the event that any bargaining unit is compelled to take job action in pursuit of a fair settlement," Mr. Elliott told union members at another assembly in March.
He said it was crucial to fight Ontario's "austerity agenda," calling it a nationwide problem.
When OSSTF teachers walked out in Durham, Peel and Sudbury, it came as a surprise, said Michael Barrett, chairman of the Durham board and head of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association. "We have all walked into that one blindly," he said.
The three boards contend they were unfairly targeted by a union that was really trying to pressure the province as a whole under its new two-tier bargaining system. They took their case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board and expect a ruling on the strikes' legality this week.
Ontario's new bargaining legislation was an attempt to improve on B.C.'s centralized talks by allowing school boards more autonomy, Mr. Barrett said. But it didn't count on Ontario's historically better relationships faltering. "It's about having to work within the process, and I don't think there was that effort," he said.
Ontario has a long way to go before approaching the bad blood in British Columbia. A government official there said that, with 40 years of strikes and back-to-work legislation, unions have been "trained" to "demand the impossible," and that Premier Christy Clark was determined to bargain it out.
Hassan Yussuff, head of the Canadian Labour Congress, said that if Ms. Wynne makes good on the threat to end the strikes, it would be a move she "cannot reverse," although he's not counting on her doing so.
"Politically, they sometimes play to a larger audience," he said.
While Ms. Wynne has had relatively good ties with teachers' unions, the previous Liberal government saw increasing friction, especially during Dalton McGuinty's final year in office, when a bill to impose teacher contracts was passed.
A Wynne government official said any back-to-work legislation would simply be a response "specific to this school year to make sure students don't lose their year."