Ontario's government and its biggest teachers' union are digging their heels into a standoff over contract talks, with elementary teachers threatening more serious strike action if negotiations don't restart soon.
But the province says its most recent offer to the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario satisfied two other teachers' unions and it's up to ETFO to explain why it's rejecting a nearly identical deal.
The province made the offer public on Friday and said no more bargaining dates are scheduled, though ETFO said it wanted to keep talking.
"If they're back this week, then we can move forward," ETFO president Sam Hammond said in an interview with The Globe on Monday. "If not, we'll have no choice but to escalate our current work-to-rule strike action," he said. "We are looking at all of our options in terms of how we can escalate this and when."
Public high school and Catholic teachers tentatively accepted deals in August that include 2.5-per-cent pay hikes. But Mr. Hammond said Monday the "cookie-cutter" offer doesn't meet the needs of his members.
ETFO and their negotiating counterparts haven't revealed the details of ETFO's requests. In a media release, the union said the needs of elementary school students are different from those of secondary school students, and therefore their teachers' working needs are different.
The deal with Catholic teachers encompasses both secondary and elementary schools, but Mr. Hammond said they, too, have different needs than teachers in the public system.
On Monday morning, Premier Kathleen Wynne took a swing at ETFO while speaking to reporters after a tour of a local high school.
"The onus is going to be on ETFO and the leadership of ETFO to explain why the tentative agreement, and basically the substance of that agreement that has been the core of the agreements with OSSTF and OECTA, why that's not good enough for their membership," she said, referring to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association.
Asked why the province had thrown down the gauntlet and publicly offered ETFO this deal, Ms. Wynne said there had been "pretty intensive bargaining" leading to it.
"That's what we can offer," she said.
Full details of the OSSTF and OECTA deals have not been made public, as they have yet to be ratified, but The Globe had learned that aside from the pay hikes, they contain no changes to class-size caps or teacher prep time, all significant victories for teachers.
Both Ms. Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals stopped short of saying they would table a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer, leaving the door open to further negotiations with ETFO.
Mr. Hammond countered the idea that bargaining had been exhaustive, saying ETFO has only negotiated for seven recent days, while the other two unions had spent more time talking over the summer. ETFO talks broke off in May and didn't restart until Sept. 1.
Mr. Hammond accused the government of rushing the process for political reasons. The Wynne government is "trying to impose a deal" on ETFO through the media, he said.
"They just want it done … and I think in part that might be connected to the federal election, to get this out of the next way in the next week or two," he said. "I don't understand why they're not at the table doing that, getting a deal rather than taking the position they've taken."
He said his 78,000 members are already making their unhappiness with the Liberal government known, and that could affect the federal Liberals as election day inches closer.
"If they don't return to the table, let's say over the course of this week, our members are going to continue to do what they're doing on their own in terms of bringing that to the attention of people across the province," he said.
The government, wrestling with a $8.5-billion deficit, is trying to hold the line in labour negotiations. Its brand-new centralized bargaining legislation ensures all teacher unions bargain simultaneously.
"We've shown with OSSTF and with OECTA that we can get those settlements," Ms. Sandals said.
Another Ontario teachers union announced Monday it was in "gridlock" at the bargaining table and was walking away. The 10,000-member Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) said it had received an "unacceptable offer" and was reviewing its options before starting a planned work-to-rule on Friday.