WATCH ABOVE: Provincial Education Minister Liz Sandals says a lot of bargaining is underway to avert a province-wide September strike. Lama Nicolas reports.
TORONTO – Education Minister Liz Sandals issued a warning to Ontario teachers Wednesday while expressing optimism about reaching new contract agreements before the start of classes Sept. 8.
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The four big teachers’ unions are, or soon will be, in legal strike positions, and that means any job actions they plan if there are no agreements by September would amount to a limited strike, not a work-to-rule campaign, said Sandals.
The unions, which represent 115,000 teachers, have talked about refusing to supervise extracurricular activities or to participate in parent-teachers meetings as possible protest actions if there are no agreements when classes resume.
READ MORE: Two Ontario teachers unions set to hold talks
They’ve been without contracts for a year now, and once they are in legal strike positions they can’t unilaterally decide on work-to-rule campaigns, said Sandals.
“The things that they’re proposing to do in the event that there are no agreements would be a partial withdrawal of services, so it is a form of strike,” she said. “The teachers can’t simply decide that as a work to rule they won’t do EQAO testing, as an example. That’s a strike action.”
However, the minister said all sides are ready to reach new agreements after negotiations resumed Wednesday with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers for the first time in three months. Talks with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation are scheduled to resume next week. The government is also in “informal” talks with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation about a resumption of negotiations.
“I really do get a sense that … everybody’s very focused on making sure that we do get agreements and there won’t be disruption in the fall,” said Sandals.
“I have a sense of a good feeling coming back from the table.”
There was already a lot of bargaining with the teachers’ unions, even if it was “in fits and starts,” and many issues have already been resolved, added Sandals.
“It isn’t like we only have a few days and we have to do everything,” she said on her way into a Liberal cabinet meeting.
Part of the difficulties in this year’s round of negotiations with the teachers is a new two-tiered bargaining process, with talks at both the local and provincial level, which Sandals said is like trying to negotiate a first contract.
READ MORE: Teachers’ unions agreed to resume stalled contract negotiations: Liberals
“There’s never ever been a central agreement with any of these organizations before, so it’s really like we’re negotiating a first central collective agreement with each and every one of the unions,” she said. “The first time you do a collective agreement is always the most difficult because you have to figure out absolutely everything as opposed to just modify a few things from the last time around.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association launched a website called teachersmatter杭州丝足 which lists workload, fair hiring as well as wages and benefits as key issues for the union in the talks. It notes teachers had their salaries frozen for two-years and the Liberals are insisting on a net zero increase in new contracts.
“We would all like to avoid a labour disruption, but not at any cost to public education,” said OECTA President Ann Hawkins.