Hamilton teachers are watching and waiting as the provincial government recalls the legislature two weeks early in a controversial move to try to force teachers into an agreement.
The Liberals are reconvening the legislature on Aug. 27 to introduce a bill that would impose a two-year deal on thousands of elementary and high school teachers.
The bill would give the government the power to ban a strike or lockout for two years.
The move is unnecessary, said Chantal Mancini, president of the teachers bargaining unit for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) district 21.
Local high school teachers in the public board have no plans to strike in the fall, she said.
“Our members are out there right now shopping and spending their own money for school supplies for the classroom,” she said.
“They've never talked about going on strike. We've never talked about job action. They're creating a crisis that is completely unnecessary.”
The province and Ontario's two largest teachers unions — OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) — have been at odds all summer.
The government has hammered out a framework agreement with the Ontario Elementary Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and a union representing teachers in French boards. But ETFO and OSSTF have said they prefer to bargain with local boards.
Contracts expire on Aug. 31. If they roll over to September, the Liberals say, it will mean pricey pay increases for teachers.
Teachers unions say any deal struck would be retroactive anyway. But Premier Dalton McGuinty's government says the cash-strapped province can't afford any more pay increases.
The OSSTF accepts that there will be a wage freeze, Mancini said. At issue is the ability for teachers to move up on the pay grid based on their education and experience.
Under what the government is proposing, teachers with less than 11 years experience who are upgrading their skills would be frozen on the grid for two years, Mancini said. That puts young teachers at a disadvantage.
The ETFO is also willing to accept a wage freeze, said Sam Hammond, provincial ETFO president who taught in Hamilton for 21 years.
At issue is the ability to move on the grid, as well as the number of sick days and some retirement gratuities.
If teachers got what they are requesting, it would cost the province $473 million in the first year, said Ministry of Education spokesperson Paris Meilleur.
If teachers move up on the grid as of Sept. 1, it would cost Hamilton's public board $2.06 million and the Catholic board $1.2 million. The following year would cost more as the costs of the grid movement are compounded, she said.
Andrea Horwath, NDP leader and Hamilton Centre MPP, told CBC Hamilton on Monday that her party will take a look at the bill. But she is not pleased by the draft legislation that has circulated.
“Teachers have already said they're prepared to take zeroes,” she said. “I think a deal can be struck.”
If teachers are forced through legislation to accept an agreement, they could launch a court challenge, Horwath said. She estimates that could cost taxpayers more than $800 million in coming years.
The legislation is a last resort, McGuinty said this week.
The government is trying to be “fair but firm in our resolve,” he said.
The minority Liberals need the help of one of the opposition parties to pass the legislation.
Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak told the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) conference Tuesday that the Liberal legislation to force teachers to take a wage freeze needed to have "teeth" if he was to support it.
With files from The Canadian Press