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Elementary teachers, Ontario government in bitter standoff over 'destructive' negotiations

Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten addresses a news conference in Toronto, Monday, April 9, 2012. With contracts expiring in August, Broten appealed to elementary school teachers to return to a provincial discussion table to help set the framework for negotiations.

Colin Perkel/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Elementary teachers in Ontario are heading into a bitter standoff with the government, as the union representing them refuses to return to the bargaining table and describes the Education Minister's negotiating process as "destructive."

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond said he plans to defy the Minister and negotiate with individual school boards instead of with the government at the provincial bargaining table.

The conditions the government set for the talks, including wage freezes and no movement up the pay grid, are "destructive, ask too much of teachers and single them out," Mr. Hammond said at a news conference on Thursday.

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Many of the union's 76,000 members supported the governing Liberals during the election campaign last fall, Mr. Hammond said. But he told reporters he now feels betrayed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, a leader who has campaigned on restoring peace and harmony in the province's schools after years of discord under the previous Progressive Conservative government.

Mr. Hammond accused the government of circumventing the province's own labour relations rules by restricting unions representing teachers to just discussing Education Minister Laurel Broten's proposal instead of exploring other options to help the cash-strapped province erase its deficit.

The government has not even established ground rules for the talks at the provincial table, he said. Mr. Hammond said he does not believe in negotiating in the media, but he said he had no choice but to respond after Ms. Broten's "provocative and unprecedented" comments earlier this week, when she took him to task for walking away from talks with the province after spending just one hour in a preliminary briefing.

The government invited ETFO to participate in a voluntary process, one that was outside the legal framework for negotiations, Mr. Hammond said.

"Is the process voluntary or is it mandatory," he asked. "Which is it?"

Ms. Broten said in a statement that she is very disappointed with ETFO's remarks on Thursday morning.

"Like many parents and teachers, I was hoping ETFO would announce their return to the table," she said.

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"It's through the provincial process that we're looking to protect the gains we've made – specifically the implementation of full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes. If we give up on those gains we would see the loss of 10,000 teaching positions – many of them at the elementary level. I'm not willing to let that happen. I'm surprised ETFO is."

Mr. Hammond noted that Finance Minister Dwight Duncan spoke of the government's respect for the collective bargaining process when he tabled his budget last month. Mr. Duncan warned that he would resort to legislation if public sector workers who bargain collectively do not voluntarily agree to a two-year wage freeze.

"Bullying behaviour and threats to legislate are no way to demonstrate respect for teachers or the collective bargaining process," Mr. Hammond said.

He was particularly upset with a letter Ms. Broten sent this week to the chairs of all 72 school boards in Ontario, aimed at discouraging them from engaging in contract talks with unions representing teachers. All the gains teachers won in 2005 and in 2008, including smaller class sizes in elementary schools and extra time for preparing lessons, resulted from collective bargaining that took place at the provincial bargaining table, Ms. Broten says in the letter.

The parameters set by the government and the letter sent to every board "degrade" teachers' collective agreements, Mr. Hammond said.

"The government proposal is an attack on women, an attack on unions, and an attack on public sector workers," he said. "There is no incentive to return to this kind of table."

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