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Education minister, teachers' union head accuse each other of lying about ongoing talks

Ontario's minister of education and the head of the province's biggest teachers' union are openly accusing each other of lying to the public about ongoing contract negotiations as strike actions ramp up.

Thousands of students out of class today as strike action ramps up

ETFO President Sam Hammond, left, and Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said today that talks reached an impasse last week. (The Canadian Press)

Ontario's education minister and the head of the province's biggest teachers' union are openly accusing each other of lying to the public about ongoing contract negotiations.

In back-to-back interviews on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday, both men said the other is spreading misinformation about the role that compensation played in three days of talks last week that ended without any discernable progress.

"I'm here to tell you, without hesitation, that we did not talk about compensation at that table over that three-day period," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The union represents some 83,000 members, including teachers and education support staff, across the province.

"This minister needs to stop lying to people, parents and the public. Because that did not happen and it was not a key or central issue during those three days."

Listen to the full interview with ETFO President Sam Hammond:

Public elementary teachers are ramping up their job action. That means if you have a kid in a public elementary school, they'll be out of school two days this week. The head of the union explains why, and why talks broke down with the province last week. 7:45

Education Minister Stephen Lecce took exception to Hammond's assertion that compensation for teachers didn't come up during last week's negotiations.

"That is patently false. Of course it did. Benefits and pay certainly came up over that process. There is a real contrast of priorities. They want us to make significant benefit enhancements and increase compensation, which we cannot accept," Lecce said.

"If we are going to be putting more money into the system, it ought to be going to students."

Listen to the full interview with Education Minister Stephen Lecce:

Kids across all public and Catholic school boards will be out of school for at least one day this week, as negotiations between the province and the teachers' unions continue to stall. We ask the minister what it will take to get back to the table and keep kids in class. 7:38

Before talks briefly resumed last week, the two sides hadn't sat down to negotiate for more than 41 days. Hammond said the most recent discussions collapsed when, on Friday night, the government made an "11th hour" change to its position on hiring practices for teachers "that we just could not agree to."

"It became obvious to us that this government was willing to scuttle an agreement in an attempt to get support from the public rather than getting a deal," he told host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Lecce said, however, that ETFO has insisted that hiring be based solely on candidates' level of union seniority and "not on their qualifications," preventing boards from ensuring that the "best person is in front of your child's class."

A number of other contentious issues are also unresolved, according to Hammond, including full-day kindergarten and funding for special education.

Lecce has repeatedly said that the government has formally committed to full-day kindergarten and codified that pledge in a letter that was delivered to the negotiating table — a concession, he said, to signal that the province is willing to bargain in good faith.

"Respectfully, it's time the teachers' union stops making excuses for the lack of progress they are making. They have to take responsibility," he said.

According to Hammond, however, there is still no explicit commitment in the current language of the collective agreement.

As for compensation, the ETFO president said that Lecce has, in media interviews, focused on teachers' salaries. But the main sticking point is for salaries and benefits for education support workers, who earn considerably less each year than teachers.

No new talks between the sides are scheduled.

Catholic teachers will be on strike throughout the province today. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Meanwhile, thousands of students will be out of class today as all Ontario's Catholic teachers hit the picket lines, as well as high school and elementary teachers in select boards.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association is holding its second provincewide strike today after holding contract talks with the government on Monday, but no deal was reached and no further dates for talks are scheduled.

Elementary teachers will engage in their second day of ramped-up rotating strikes, hitting more school boards per day than they did during the job actions they held over the past two weeks.

Today, ETFO is targeting the Avon Maitland, Durham, Hastings-Prince Edward, Lambton Kent, Peel, Rainbow, Thames Valley and Upper Grand school boards as well as Campbell Children's School Authority, and is planning a provincewide strike on Thursday.

High school teachers will strike at the Lakehead, Lambton Kent, Thames Valley, Waterloo Region, York Region, Halton and Kawartha Pine Ridge school boards.

With files from The Canadian Press

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