Teachers learned the details Thursday of threatened legislation from the Ontario government that would impose a wage freeze if they fail to reach approved labour deals by the start of September.
Education Minister Laurel Broten announced the details of the Putting Students First Act, which would apply to all public-school teachers in the province and is intended to ensure that there are no labour disruptions for the next two years.
The government says it is also about containing costs in the education system.
Broten said that if unions and boards do not reach deals that are consistent with government expectations by Sept. 1, existing contracts will roll over with financial obligations that will cost the province $473 million.
But that is an unacceptable outcome to the government.
'I don’t believe the average Ontario worker would expect to get a 5.5 per cent pay hike in these economic times just because they took the summer off and refused to negotiate a new agreement.' —Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten
"We must act now in the best interest of students and parents to ensure that school starts on time and that we protect the gains we’ve made in education," said Broten.
"As a government, we’ve made a clear choice — to protect gains in educational outcomes while meeting the province’s fiscal challenges."
If boards and teachers don't sign local agreements similar to the one the government reached with English Catholic teachers, the draft bill would impose similar terms on all teachers in the province until a new two-year contract is signed and approved by the government.
If the bill is passed, the government would also have the power to ban a strike or lockout for the next two school years.
The government would also have the authority to impose a new collective agreement.
And if teachers are awarded automatic raises that kick in before the proposed legislation passes, they would be forced to pay that money back to the government.
"Our proposed legislation will ensure that teachers and staff who get raises because their board allowed their contracts to roll over will have to pay that money back," Broten said.
"I don’t believe the average Ontario worker would expect to get a 5.5 per cent pay hike in these economic times just because they took the summer off and refused to negotiate a new agreement. What I'm saying today is, that won't happen, we won't let it happen."
NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson says he was stunned by Broten's comments.
"I think it's most unfortunate that the minister's trying to pick a fight with teachers," he said.
"Kids look up to their teachers every day, and I think the fact that the minister of education is trying to belittle educators doesn't bode well in the eyes of students."
Minority Liberals would need to recall legislature
The minority Liberals won't say when they plan to introduce the legislation, which would require them to recall the legislature early.
It will also require the help of opposition parties to get the bill passed, which the education minister acknowledged.
"So I’m calling on the PCs and the NDP to step up and support a fair and balanced approach to ensuring stability in our schools," said Broten.
Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod said the government was not making it clear when it would introduce the legislation and appeared skeptical that it would actually be brought forward.
"We don't know at this point if it's just a public relations exercise or just another part of the ongoing fight that the McGuinty Liberals have engaged in with both teachers' unions and school boards," she said.
The province previously raised the threat of using legislation to impose new contracts for teachers. But the precise nature of that legislation was not made clear until Broten's announcement on Thursday.
The Liberals are also in the midst of a battle for two seats in the legislature that could give them the majority government they covet.
Two byelections will take place on Sept. 6 — one in Kitchener-Waterloo, the other in Vaughan.
If the Liberals manage to win both seats, it will give them 54 of the 107 seats at Queen’s Park and restore the majority control they held from 2003 to 2011.