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Why Ontario and teachers’ unions seem set for another tense showdown

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says the government will table legislation early next year to give it direct control over salaries, benefits and other perks at Ontario Power Generation.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press

It doesn't seem that long ago Ontario's public school system was in a state of chaos: There were large-scale walkouts across the province and all extracurriculars came to a grinding halt as teachers staged protests against the Liberal government's legislation dictating the terms of their contracts.

A year later, with contracts set to expire at the end of the summer, Kathleen Wynne's minority government already appears to be in for another bumpy ride. Voters are the last place where the government will find any sympathy after last year's mess.

Ms. Wynne's Liberals are caught between dealing with a climate of fiscal constraint and appeasing a group that has, until lately, been among its strongest supporters. The party lost more than a few points with teacher unions in the last go with Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that infringed on collective bargaining rights, restricted the ability to strike and imposed pay cuts for teachers through unpaid days, the latest of which is early March.

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To avoid a repeat, the government has introduced a new piece of legislation, Bill 122, which legally defines how the bargaining process will work. Big monetary issues, such as salaries and benefits, would be negotiated centrally by the government, provincial unions and school board associations. Bargaining on local issues, such as teacher workload, access to technology and training, would take place between individual school boards and their respective unions. The Liberal government's biggest failing in this is trying to resolve the bargaining issues when times were good, and effectively leaving it to the most difficult possible time to try and figure it out.

We have a situation now where school boards and teacher unions like the idea of the legislation, but not necessarily everything that's in it.

Paul Elliott, the new president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, has hinted that if the amendments teachers have suggested are not addressed, it could spell trouble down the road. In particular, teacher unions are unhappy about the fact that Bill 122 gives the Minister of Education too much power in determining what gets bargained provincially and locally, and on issues like the length of future contracts. The consensus among unions is that these items need to be brought to the table and negotiated.

Already, the tone is tense – and bargaining doesn't even begin until the fall. Teacher contracts expire in August, and usually bargaining begins in earnest as the contract is reaching its end.

Ontario is not the only province that is facing headwinds from its teacher unions. Provinces appear to be locked in continuous conflict with the civil service, and teachers in particular.

The situation in B.C. is bordering on toxic. Teachers in that province will vote on a strike mandate next week. This follows a judge's ruling that the government attempted to provoke a full-blown strike during the last job action. Premier Christy Clark has promised to negotiate a 10-year contract, which the union deeply opposes. There have been some strong words from both camps of late.

Ontario teachers used to be NDP supporters but the party lost them after former New Democratic premier Bob Rae used a similar strategy as the Liberals, forcing unpaid days off, to deal with a deficit in the early 1990s.

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The Liberals were elected in 2003 on the pledge to restore labour peace in the province following dramatic funding cuts of health care and education as part of the former Progressive Conservative government's Common Sense Revolution. But that 2003 version of the Liberals had more cash on hand. When Ms. Wynne was Education Minister in 2008, teachers received a 12 per cent wage hike over four years (the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario received 10.4 per cent because it failed to meet a deadline for accepting a contract offer). The way the process worked at the time is the government allowed school boards to dispense the money, even though it held the purse strings. Ontario removed school boards' taxation power in 1997, and there has been much confusion about whether negotiations should be with the province or with local boards.

All that changed with Bill 115, when the government signalled it planned to use its power to unilaterally impose contracts on elementary and secondary teachers.

Just to throw another wrench into the Liberals' plans of a stable school year, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives have been using a range of procedural manoeuvres to hold up the teacher bargaining legislation, among other bills. They say they are trying to send a message to Ms. Wynne that she has not done enough to fix the province's economy. The Liberals contend that the teacher bargaining framework has to be in place for negotiations to begin.

But if there's a spring election, and the legislation does not pass before, there would be no structure in place for negotiations. That could trigger a fresh round of unrest in Ontario's public schools.

Caroline Alphonso reports on education from Toronto.

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