The Ontario Liberal government has taken a hard line against teachers, threatening to bring in legislation that will block them from getting a hefty pay raise or going on strike.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said the bill is a way to prevent unions who left the bargaining table from being rewarded with a 5.5-per-cent wage increase that was supposed to take effect this fall. "As a government we cannot sit back," Ms. Broten said. "Ontarians do not expect that you can sit on your hands and not negotiate and get a pay raise."
Ontario's tough approach is a dynamic playing out across the country as cash-strapped provinces are taking on public-sector workers, including teachers and doctors, in an effort to balance the books. Teachers in British Columbia walked out for three days after the government refused them a pay raise, and in April, a hospital workers' strike in Halifax was narrowly avoided by a last-minute deal.
Until recently, Ontario's teachers seemed the least likely group to fall out with provincial leaders in such a dramatic way.
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who styled himself as the Education Premier, introduced full-day kindergarten programs that saved teaching jobs as well as caps to class sizes that improved working conditions.
A near-decade of labour peace appeared certain to continue.
The Liberals' proposed bill makes official the end of that warm relationship.
The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, Sam Hammond, said earlier this week that his members had voted in favour of a "one-day political protest" if the government introduced legislation, but was vague about when that might happen. Strike votes are scheduled for September and October, but union leaders have vowed that the school year will start as usual this fall.
Reached late Thursday, an ETFO spokesperson said union leadership needed time to review the bill before they could comment.
Though the province has struck a tentative deal with English Catholic and francophone teachers, it has struggled to get other unions and the school boards to sign on. If a new contract isn't signed ahead of Sept. 1, the old contract will take effect, leading to $473-million in salary bumps the province says it can't afford.
The province has proposed a two-year wage freeze and a delay to pay-grid bumps for young teachers. They've also cut the number of yearly sick days in half – from 20 to 10 – and proposed an end to terms that allow teachers to bank unused sick days and cash out at retirement.
The bill would require unions and school boards to use those terms as the framework for their negotiations, and imposes a deadline of Dec. 31. It includes a clawback provision that would work retroactively if it were signed after Sept. 1, when the default raises take effect.
This clause was likely written in because the bill is certain to face opposition at Queen's Park, where the Liberals hold a minority government.
NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said it is too early to tell whether members of his party would support the bill, but he accused the Liberal government of over-blowing the risk of a teacher strike in order to win support.
"They're trying to create a crisis in the background of these by-elections," he said, referring to the empty seats in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Winning those seats would give the Liberals a majority government.