The Ontario government is turning up the heat on the province's elementary teachers, warning that they risk losing smaller class sizes and extra time to prepare lessons if the union representing them doesn't return to the bargaining table.
Education Minister Laurel Broten has singled out the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario for walking away from talks with the province while everyone else in the sector is still at the table.
She said ETFO president Sam Hammond spent just one hour in a preliminary briefing, and has refused repeated requests to discuss the province's calls for salary freezes and cuts to retirement payouts.
"In my opinion, one hour of effort on behalf of elementary teachers, students and parents simply isn't good enough," Ms. Broten said at a news conference in her office on Monday, after reporters were taken through security in a government building closed for the holiday. "In our schools, in our homes, we teach our children to work through differences, but ETFO walked away without even trying."
Labour leaders worry that Premier Dalton McGuinty is using the province's teachers to usher in a more confrontational tone for bargaining with the broader public service. His government vowed in this month's budget to impose a mandatory wage freeze on doctors, teachers, nurses and other public-sector workers who bargain collectively if they don't voluntarily freeze their pay for two years.
The tough talk with unionized workers comes as the government faces a $15.3-billion deficit. The province put teachers on notice last month – well before their contract expires on Aug. 31 – that it wants them to accept a two-year freeze on salaries as well as no movement up the pay grid. In exchange, the province is promising to preserve full-day kindergarten as well as protect gains made in previous rounds of bargaining, including caps on elementary class sizes and more time for preparing lessons.
"We are asking our education partners to do their part to protect these gains," Ms. Broten said. If ETFO does not return to the table, she warned, "I think that establishes a very challenging construct for preserving those gains."
ETFO issued a brief statement on Monday, saying, "We are studying the Minister's request and consulting with legal counsel and will issue a formal response later this week."
In a letter to its members earlier this month, the federation called the province's initial offer "offensive." The government is proposing to end retirement payouts of unused sick days and does not want to increase its level of contribution to pension plans.
Teachers are not the only public-sector workers heading to the bargaining table this year. The contract for the province's approximately 24,000 doctors expired 11 days ago. All is quiet on that front, however, with both the Ontario Medical Association and the government saying only that contract talks are continuing. In all, 1,296 contracts expire in 2012, covering 335,678 public-sector workers, or just over 40 per cent of the total.
The "undercurrent of aggression" toward teachers from the self-described Education Premier has labour leader Gary Gannage wondering whether the province is preparing to "go for broke" with other union groups. Mr. Gannage is president of the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario. AMAPCEO represents professional and supervisory public servants, and is the second-largest group within the Ontario Public Service with 11,500 members. Its contract talks begin in July.
"We recognize that the fiscal framework is out of whack, that there needs to be some frank, candid discussion," Mr. Gannage said in an interview. "But we don't think it's helpful to have … bullying activity, the threat of the legislative hammer at the outset."
The Progressive Conservatives have been pushing for a mandatory wage freeze in the broader public sector to help erase the deficit. "They've been very weak in responding to the crisis that we have before us," Tory MPP Lisa MacLeod said of the governing Liberals.