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Speaking at a CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) press conference are from left Paul Moist, CUPE National president; Fred Hahn (centre focus), president CUPE Ontario and Terri Preston, CUPE's school board committee chair.Fred Lum

The Ontario government is facing union opposition to major legislation designed to fix the collective bargaining process for teachers and other school workers.

The union representing support staff in Ontario schools announced Monday it is not supporting Bill 122 because of a dispute with the government over its current collective agreement. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, meanwhile, contends that the bill gives the Minister of Education too much power.

The legislation is meant to calm the waters in the province's schools after last year's labour strife. The proposed law spells out which items in new collective agreements will be negotiated centrally with the province and which can be left up to individual school boards.

But the Canadian Union of Public Employees accused the government of failing to make sure every school board in the province implemented the last deal between the union and the government. If they will not do this, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn said, it is difficult to see how they can handle province-wide negotiations in future.

"Until the government actually lives up to the deal they negotiated last year, why would we trust them? Why would anyone trust them?" he said at Queen's Park. "What happened is not fair, and it is not what central bargaining is all about."

Some schools boards failed to give CUPE members – which include education assistants, secretaries, librarians and custodians, among others – the same sick leave benefits as teachers, the union says.

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said that CUPE's complaints that its members are not receiving the same benefits stems from the union not adopting similar terms as teachers in the previous contract.

"CUPE had the opportunity to opt in to the agreements that were given to both OSSTF and ETFO with regard to the sick day provision but they had to adopt the entire language that was provided," Mr. Barrett said. "This was not done, and hence there is a difference between the two agreements."

He contended that the problem CUPE is raising is actually proof that the new legislation needed so that all teachers and other education workers can bargain in a similar process. OPSBA supports the new legislation, Mr. Barrett said.

"There's a very significant need to be able to have a defined collective bargaining process," he said.

Education Minister Liz Sandals took a similar tack, arguing that the concerns over negotiating and implementing CUPE's contract are precisely the reason Bill 122 should be brought in.

"We acknowledge that the current collective bargaining and implementation structure is challenging, which is exactly why we need to pass Bill 122, the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act," she said in a statement. "This legislation would establish a clear framework for bargaining, would provide a legally binding process for the government, boards and employees, and would improve the dispute resolution processes in the education sector going forward."

But the two major teachers unions that locked horns with the government last year are also raising concerns about the bill.

ETFO argues the government is free to set the term of the agreement, whether it's two or four years, and can decide which issues should be bargained centrally, rather than locally.

"The bill gives the government a number of new powers over bargaining and control over employer bargaining agents, but without making the government a full party at the central bargaining table," the union says in a list of concerns posted on its website.

Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said his union is waiting to hear about amendments it has suggested on Bill 122, and it is still dealing with issues arising from the previous contract. Mr. Elliott said in light of this, "it's difficult to maintain a positive outlook on future discussions with the government."

Public school teachers stopped supervising extracurricular activities last year after the Liberal government introduced Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that dictated the terms of their contracts.

The Ontario Liberals, under new Leader Kathleen Wynne, moved to resume talks with union leaders, and contracts were tweaked.