Ontario's Liberal government will use legislation if necessary to make sure the new school year is not delayed by labour problems, Education Minister Laurel Broten vowed Monday.
"We will not allow the start of school year to be delayed or interrupted," Broten said as she admitted the province had given up hope of reaching new contracts with most teachers' unions.
It'll be up to school boards to bargain local agreements based on the one contract the province did manage to secure, with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, she said. That deal allows younger teachers to get raises, but freezes salaries for the majority.
"It is not the practice generally to enter into local bargaining over the summer during August, but my message to them is that we need to see local agreements be put in place during the course of this month," Broten said Monday.
"We've done heavy lifting on it for them, working with OECTA."
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said Broten's "unwarranted threats and demands are unrealistic in terms of timelines and quite frankly irresponsible" because she gives boards only one month to negotiate new contracts.
"It took them almost six months to negotiate that deal with OECTA, and she's expecting us to do that in 30 days," said ETFO president Sam Hammond.
The union accused Broten of intentionally misleading parents about the risk of a strike delaying the start of the school year.
"I made it very clear, the largest teachers' union in Canada, that our members would be on the job as professionals in September," said Hammond.
"We are taking strike votes, but they begin the second week of September and go into Oct. 2, well, well outside of the minister's timelines."
Most teachers' unions refused to negotiate because of the cash-strapped government's call for a two-year wage freeze from more than one million public sector workers to trim a $15-billion deficit.
"Some of them walked away after only an hour (of contract talks) and have not returned," said Broten.
"The Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association has disbanded their provincial discussion table team, so it is now incumbent on our local boards and local trustees to take the road map that we have provided them and use it as a mechanism to find local solutions."
The NDP said it was no surprise most teachers' unions don't want to negotiate with a government that is threatening legislation to enforce its wage freeze.
"Of course they're asking the local boards to do what they won't," said New Democrat Cheri DiNovo.
"She's walked away from the table and she's suggesting that this legislation, whatever it might look like, is going to solve things. It's not."
There has been no class time lost to strikes or lockouts since the Liberals were elected in 2003, and they want to keep that record going while protecting gains such as full-time kindergarten and smaller class sizes, said Broten.
"If they are unwilling or perhaps unable to do so we will take the necessary steps, which would include the introduction of legislation," she said.
However, Broten refused to say if the legislation she talked about would freeze wages or take over local boards, or how it could be introduced in time to guarantee the start of the school year when the legislature is not scheduled to sit until Sept. 10.
The Progressive Conservatives, who favour a legislated pay freeze for all public sector workers, fear Broten would use her threatened bill to impose the OECTA contract on other unions, which the Tories point out doesn't really freeze wages for many teachers.
"Is it going to be a wage freeze across the board or is it going to be the OECTA so-called deal, which actually sees teachers receive a salary increase over two years," wondered Tory Lisa MacLeod.
"If that deal is replicated for all teachers' unions, 45,000 teachers in total will continue to move up the (salary) grid, and that's going to cost Ontario taxpayers $438 million more annually."
If new contracts aren't reached by the end of August — and no legislation is introduced — the old agreements would automatically roll over, giving all teachers wage hikes.
"We will protect student outcomes and the gains we made in education by not allowing an automatic increase in teacher compensation," said Broten.
The Ontario Public School Boards Association did not immediately return calls seeking comment on Broten's decision to tell trustees to bargain local contracts based on the OECTA agreement.