Toronto·Analysis

What does the future hold for Ontario teachers?

As the first full week of school begins, Ontario's Wynne government is keeping an eye on British Columbia, where teachers are still walking the picket line.

An ongoing strike in B.C. may hint at labour trouble for Kathleen Wynne

The stakes are high for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals as they negotiate a new contract with teachers and try to avoid the kind of strike that has closed classrooms in B.C. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

As the first full week of school in this province begins, the Kathleen Wynne government is keeping an eye on British Columbia where teachers are still walking the picket line.

Because while the Liberals will deny it, they are privately worried that their tough line with teachers could backfire and Ontario’s labour peace in the classroom could evaporate.

Many teachers believe they’ve made personal sacrifices for the government or had them imposed on them.

So no matter what their associations are saying, there are a lot of teachers who believe it’s time for the Liberals to show — not just talk about — their gratitude and that it needs to come with a dollar sign attached.

Publicly, for the Wynne government, it’s all about optimism, with teacher contracts having expired at the end of last month and negotiations beginning.

"I am not anticipating a strike."

That was and remains the message from Education Minister Liz Sandals. "I’m anticipating a very calm school year."

And yet Sandals is the first to admit that the teacher talks "will be challenging."

The challenge comes from what has become Premier Kathleen Wynne’s mantra: that there is "no new money" for compensation for teachers and anyone else in the public sector. The inside-the-government view is that she means it.

But that doesn’t mean that the Liberals have been talking privately with teacher union officials to underscore the Wynne words and to get a sense of the militancy that may or may not surface in contract talks.

The one thing that really worries the Liberals is the teachers' war chest. It's a fund so rich that a $1-million cheque was mailed west to B.C. for teachers with what I’m told by multiple sources contained the words: "Defeat the (Clark) government."

The president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association says like the Liberals, he believes that an agreement without a disruption of any kind in the classroom is possible.

But Michael Barrett also notes that teachers in B.C. are on strike over wages, among other issues.

Teachers have shown their political might before

Wynne, even with her majority, cannot afford to break the Liberal record of bringing "peace in the classroom," and knows the political consequences of losing what she calls "a strong partnership" with Ontario’s teachers.

In the 2013 provincial byelection in the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo, unhappy teachers turned their backs on the Liberals and worked and helped finance a win by NDP candidate Catherine Fife.

In another byelection in London, Wynne recruited Ken Coran, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, to carry the Liberal standard.

Again, unhappy teachers worked instead for the NDP candidate and were instrumental in getting her elected and re-elected in the June provincial election.

The byelection defeats stunned the Liberals and Wynne launched a campaign to win back the teachers.

She even apologized at one point for the previous Liberal McGuinty government’s decision to suspend collective bargaining for two years.

Have teachers forgiven the Liberals? Apparently, not yet.

Speaking to the Elementary Teachers Federation last month Wynne got a very cool — some would say angry — reaction.

She also heard some derisive laughter when she suggested one of the first things she did as premier was to acknowledge that the previous government’s decision had been "flawed," even though she sat at the cabinet table when it was made.

But in between, Wynne won her majority and that is something not lost on the teacher unions.

Wynne has, for now, a lot of political capital and she might just spend some of that with parents to ensure she gets her way at the bargaining table.

So the teacher unions — elementary and secondary — must now decide about the risks of taking on Wynne while risking a public backlash.

In the meantime, talks will proceed. But students and parents might just want to circle January on their 2015 calendars. By then, the future of the rest of the school year should be clearer and whether, as Liz Sandals has predicted, it’s a "very calm" time.

If not, the Liberals have already left themselves some bargaining table wiggle room. They are prepared to insist on a wage freeze while hinting the teachers could still see contract improvements, including a wage increase, so long as that extra cash comes out of the current and so-called "spending envelope" for education.

About the Author

Robert Fisher

Provincial Affairs Specialist

A commentator with decades of experience covering Queen's Park, Robert Fisher writes about politics for CBC.ca. He is an award-winning broadcast journalist with more than 30 years of experience in public and private radio and television.

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