Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne faced a room full of angry elementary teachers as she stressed there would be no new money for salary increases, signalling a long, tense round of contract negotiations that could affect students.
Speaking at the annual meeting for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) on Wednesday, Ms. Wynne said her majority Liberal government won the recent election, but not the lottery, and the province faces fiscal challenges.
"I said there is no new money for compensation increases. But we have no intention of bargaining in the media … and I am confident the bargaining will be fair and the issues will be dealt with at the bargaining table," Ms. Wynne told the audience.
Teacher contracts expire at the end of this month. Many educators are still fuming over lost wages through unpaid days in their most recent contract, less than two years ago, when the Liberals under Ms. Wynne's predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, imposed Bill 115. The legislation infringed on their collective bargaining rights and restricted their ability to strike. Teachers stopped leading extracurricular activities in protest, and staged walkouts.
Although Ms. Wynne told teachers that this round of negotiations would be respectful and fair, she was attacked by teachers during a question-and-answer session. Teachers questioned her government's tactics in the last round, and Ms. Wynne was asked how educators and support workers could trust her or the Liberal party.
David Clegg, president of the York Region's local ETFO chapter, asked Ms. Wynne whether she was "truly regretful" for the "anti-democratic" legislation and would restore what teachers lost. Another teacher asked how he could trust the government when it "stole $10,000 out of my pocket." Younger teachers lost their banked sick days when the government imposed the terms of their contracts.
Ms. Wynne conceded that Bill 115 was flawed, and said she planned to repair the damage, restore relationships and avoid some of the chaos of last year through a new collective bargaining process.
Under Ms. Wynne, the Liberals entrenched a new bargaining process, Bill 122, for teachers before the election was called.
Bill 122 defines how the bargaining process will work: Big monetary issues, such as salaries and benefits, will be negotiated centrally by the government, provincial unions and school board associations; bargaining on local issues, such as teachers' workload, access to technology and training, would take place between individual school boards and their unions.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation met with the government and school boards on Wednesday for its first bargaining session. ETFO is expected to meet with the government in early September.
Leaders of teachers' unions have said their members are looking for improvements after the cuts imposed on them in their most recent contract, even as Ontario faces a $12.5-billion deficit.
Although the Liberals have said that their central task is to get public-sector unions, including teachers, to accept pay freezes and to temper their expectations, Education Minister Liz Sandals recently told reporters that if all sides can find savings within the education budget, teachers and support workers could see a bump in pay.
Sam Hammond, president of ETFO, declined to comment Wednesday on what his members were looking for, or whether money could be shifted in the education envelope for wage increases.
"We are going to go to the bargaining table. We're going to ask for full disclosure. We're going to look at the numbers. We're going to look at the issues and we're going to go from there," he told reporters.