The Ontario government is imposing contracts on tens of thousands of teachers and now plans to repeal the controversial legislation that allowed it to do so — a scenario that one union leader says is confusing at best.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said Thursday the government is forcing contracts on about 130,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, using the powers it gained under Bill 115 — known as the Putting Students First Act — last fall.
The agreements will be similar to deals signed by Catholic and French-language teachers last year. They will include:
- Freezing wages for most teachers.
- Reducing the number of sick days.
- Limiting the unclaimed sick days teachers can cash out when they retire.
The imposed contracts will expire in August 2014.
Broten said the move to impose contracts, using the legislation, was needed to avoid pay increases the province can't afford as it struggles to pare back a $14-billion deficit.
"The Putting Students First Act has now accomplished what it was passed by a majority of the house to do: to preserve our gains in education, minimize labour disruption during the extended negotiating period and protect teaching jobs," she told reporters at a news conference in Toronto.
The move comes after months of stalled negotiations and a series of rotating one-day walkouts by elementary teachers in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break.
Following the minister's announcement, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said her plan would not placate the teachers who have opposed the bill and its intents.
"By saying that she will repeal Bill 115 after using it to trample our collective bargaining rights and our collective agreements, the education minister has admitted that the legislation is deeply flawed," Hammond told reporters Thursday morning.
"Minister Broten will not erase the stain of Bill 115 simply by removing it after it is used."
Ken Coran, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said it was not surprising that the government moved ahead with a plan to impose contracts on his members and tens of thousands of other teachers.
"I would say there was certainly no surprise, there was no shock, but certainly there was disappointment with the way the government has handled this round of bargaining," Coran said when appearing on CBC-TV's Power & Politics on Thursday afternoon.
Further strike action illegal
Broten also said Thursday the government will repeal Bill 115 once the contracts are in place, saying the bill has become a "lightning rod" in the dispute between the province and teachers.
She said the bill has served its purpose by leading to contracts with teachers, and described the move to repeal it by month's end as an act of "good faith" by the province.
Hammond, however, said her explanation did not compute.
"I don't know how you can enforce that unprecedented bill and in that same sentence say that now that you've enforced it, you’re going to repeal it," he said.
"More confusion added to the situation, I don’t understand it."
Teachers' unions have warned that the Liberals would be asking for trouble if they force new agreements on their members, and have vowed to stage "days of protest" to fight it.
It's not clear whether those protests will involve more walkouts, but Broten said Thursday any strike action by teachers is now illegal until the imposed contracts expire.
Some teachers have also stopped supervising extracurricular activities and coaching sports teams.
"I urge teachers not to move to illegal strikes," said Broten.
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo said the government's move to use and then repeal Bill 115 is an example of "Liberal backroom cynical politics at its worst."
"You don’t impose agreements; you come to agreements," said DiNovo, who also pointed out that the legislation is the subject of a court challenge.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak also criticized the government’s plan to repeal the bill.
"I worry that the government is going to throw out the first bill that had a wage freeze in it," Hudak said Thursday. "That tells me they want to put the union bosses back in charge of running the province."
Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, an advocacy group, said it was hard to say what effect the government’s move would have when students return to classes next week.
"It feels a little bit like giving with one hand and taking away with another, so I’m not sure if this is really going to solve the problems that we're in," Kidder told reporters Thursday.
The fight with teachers will be key to the fortunes of Ontario's minority Liberal government as the party prepares to select a new leader later this month.
The Liberals could also find themselves on the campaign trail early in 2013 if the new premier fails to get support from opposition members.
Broten said that the next premier will have to wrestle with the same "fiscal realities" as the current premier.
"And the fiscal realities in this province require that the Ministry of Education live within its allocated budget," she said.