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Canada Wynne says Ontario won’t budge from latest offer to elementary teachers

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says the province won't budge from its latest offer to the ETFO, despite the threat of one-day strikes.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Premier Kathleen Wynne says she is unhappy that elementary teachers are threatening to step up job action, but the province is not budging from its last contract offer.

Ms. Wynne vowed on Monday not to give the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario a better deal than the province has negotiated with other teacher unions. "That conversation [with the ETFO] obviously has to be within the parameters of the other agreements that have been settled," she said.

The ETFO has threatened to begin rotating strikes in October and to scale back non-teaching activities, asking teachers to show union solidarity on "Wynne Wednesdays."

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Talks with the ETFO broke off on Sept. 11 after the province made an offer it described as parallel to what other teachers unions have accepted. Its negotiators have refused to set more bargaining dates. With two deals ratified late last week, Education Minister Liz Sandals said on Friday the province's negotiators will only go back to the table when the ETFO accepts the basics of the current proposal.

However, the union wants to continue talking. In an internal bulletin on Friday, the ETFO told its members to prepare for an increased work-to-rule for the rest of September, then one-day strikes starting sometime in October "if sufficient progress has not occurred at the bargaining table."

The Premier, who has a granddaughter in Grade 1, said she does not believe that kids and families should be "caught in the middle of the dispute," but that she was planning to hold the line with the ETFO.

"I'm not happy about the fact that there is increased disruption in our public elementary schools. It is not a situation that I want to continue," she said at a photo op at a commuter train yard.

Union members have been asked to colour co-ordinate their outfits and refuse to do non-classroom tasks on "Wynne Wednesdays." Ms. Wynne said she is not taking the tactic personally.

"I imagine my granddaughter will have a question about why my name is on the front of a T-shirt if that happens. What I will say to her is, 'You know, Livvy, we're trying to get this agreement in place, we're trying to work hard with the teachers so you can have the best year possible in Grade 1,'" Ms. Wynne said.

"I don't think the teachers in my granddaughter's school are mad at me. … I think it's being personalized because that's a political tactic, but I don't think they are mad at me. I think that they know it's part of a process."

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The province has tied up some loose ends recently with some other teachers' unions, even as the situation with the ETFO deteriorates.

On Wednesday, it settled on a tentative deal with the union for teachers at French schools, the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, just two days after the union said its negotiations were in "gridlock" and it was leaving the table.

On Thursday, Catholic school teachers voted to ratify a tentative agreement reached in August, becoming the first of the five education unions to ratify a deal in this round of bargaining, which began in September, 2014. On Friday, the public high-school teachers union followed, announcing that its teachers had ratified their own deal.

New legislation ensured that all five unions were bargaining simultaneously over the past year. Although talks broke off for all the unions at different times, by mid-August the three largest had resumed discussions or had announced plans to do so.

Tentative agreements swiftly followed for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, each involving a 2.5 per cent pay hike.

The president of OECTA, Ann Hawkins, said at the time that she was pleased with the deal and that her members had not had to give up anything significant in order to get the pay raise. "I wouldn't say we made concessions at all," she said.

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The OSSTF's president, Paul Elliott, said in a statement that "in the end we were able to fend off [the Ontario Public School Boards' Association]'s assault on our agreements and on the learning conditions of our students."

Ms. Sandals said Friday that OECTA's and the OSSTF's agreements were in keeping with the province's promise to maintain "net zero" contracts, in which pay raises are offset by other savings. On Monday, the Ministry of Education said it will not release more specifics yet, as the bargaining process is still unfolding with some "education partners."

ETFO president Sam Hammond has said public elementary-school teachers have different needs than other teachers and do not want a "cookie-cutter" deal. He has accused the province of rushing the ETFO talks in order to wrap them up before the federal election.

In addition to the ETFO teachers, tens of thousands of other school staff remain without contracts. The OSSTF will return to the table on Sept. 23 on behalf of its 20,000 support worker members, Mr. Elliott said.

The fifth union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, represents 55,000 non-teaching staff, including custodians, tradesmen, secretaries and various kinds of teaching assistants. Strike action by its members could close some schools for health and safety reasons. CUPE remained in talks until Thursday, spokesman Mario Emond said, and its bargaining committee is meeting on Monday before announcing its next steps.

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