Despite calls from some Ontario Liberal leadership candidates to hold off until after a new premier is chosen at their party's late-January convention, Dalton McGuinty's government remains poised to use its powers under the controversial Bill 115 to impose two-year contracts on teachers if collective agreements aren't reached by Dec. 31.
If that happens, labour turmoil in the province's schools can be expected to continue into the new year, with the focus shifting to how Mr. McGuinty's successor will deal with it. Here are some of the ways he or she could respond to pressure from the unions, and from parents upset about kids being caught in the middle.
1. Repeal Bill 115 and tear up the new contracts
This is the only option that would completely satisfy the teachers' unions. With support from the third-party NDP, the Liberals could roll back the legislation that sets a rigid framework for new deals, while reopening negotiations toward collective agreements. The obvious disincentive, aside from showing weakness, is the cost. Restoring entitlements such as the banking of sick days, which would presumably be necessary to reach deals, would make it extremely difficult to meet deficit-reduction targets; it would also impede the government's ability to get concessions from other public-sector workers.
For that reason, it's unlikely the new premier would actually go this route; even Gerard Kennedy and Eric Hoskins, the leadership candidates most critical of the government's current approach, haven't gone quite this far.
2. Repeal Bill 115 without reopening negotiations
If Education Minister Laurel Broten uses its powers to impose new contracts following the current Dec. 31 deadline for negotiations, the legislation will in some ways be a moot point. Taking it off the books would not invalidate those contracts, and the bill's scope does not extend past their expiration.
In other words, this would be a mostly symbolic gesture, aimed at recognizing the unions' concerns about having their collective bargaining rights taken away without retroactively restoring them. Hollow though that may seem, it's a possibility that even NDP Leader Andrea Horwath seemed to be flirting with in an interview this week – saying that Bill 115 "wouldn't be on the books" if her party formed government, but acknowledging it's "hard to unscramble an egg."
Repealing could conceivably be combined with other measures to demonstrate the new premier's commitment to repairing the relationship.
3. Start negotiating what comes next
Ordinarily, teachers' contracts are for four years. Since the ones currently being implemented are for only half that time, the government might try to rebuild goodwill by launching talks toward more amenable arrangements that would take effect as early as the start of the 2014 school year.
Many of those familiar with the situation believe this could be the sweet spot – and that it may be what leadership candidates are tacitly referring to when they say they would move swiftly to reopen lines of communication.
That said, even if it appeased the unions, it might not be much better for the province's long-term fiscal situation than a straight-up climbdown. As the Drummond Report noted earlier this year, wage freezes and other across-the-board measures often prove ineffective because governments make up for them in subsequent contracts; this threatens to be an accelerated version of that.
4. Recommit to collective bargaining – just not quite yet
One step short of starting to negotiate the next contract would be to provide reassurance to teachers about what will happen when those talks do begin. That could involve trying to bring together union, school-board and government representatives to set in place a structure that allows more give-and-take next time around.
Mr. Kennedy, who had some success in labour negotiations as education minister during Mr. McGuinty's first term, has called for "consultation tables" chaired by independent outsiders. While he wants those to help solve the current mess, it's the sort of model that someone like Kathleen Wynne – another former education minister with a better chance of winning the leadership – could reasonably adopt going forward. This option could be seen as a way to turn the page without throwing away savings Mr. McGuinty has pursued, though it's questionable whether it would be enough to bring imminent peace.
5. Stay the course
If he or she is worried about seeming spineless, or just genuinely believes this isn't the time to compromise on fiscal restraint, the next premier could simply pick up where Mr. McGuinty left off.
The leadership campaign to date suggests all the Premier's would-be successors are reluctant to continue the public-relations battle against teachers; they've bemoaned their party's intermittent demonization of erstwhile allies, and seem to uniformly favour a less combative tone. But if that's not accompanied by at least a mild policy shift, they'll be tacitly endorsing what the government has done to date – a decision that would require some strong stomachs.