Striking high school teachers in Durham, Peel and Sudbury should have seen it coming when education minister Liz Sandals announced that back-to-school legislation was on the way. It has been six weeks of no classes for 70,000 students, and public sympathy for those students was reaching critical mass. Certainly, less so for the striking teachers.
Negotiations between the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the province reached an impasse, leaving the Liberal government with few options as parents and students raised the temperature on being out of the classroom.
While the Progressive Conservatives support the legislation, as expected, the heavily union-supported New Democratic Party (NDP) held out on agreement to have the legislation tabled for discussion, and that is understandable.
There is now a fragile, some would say rapidly diminishing, balance between honouring the right of unions to protect and advocate for workers, including the right to strike for better wages and working conditions, and the interests of their employers to ensure acceptable levels of productivity.
The last time provincial politicians moved with any rapidity on similar legislation was in response to the 2008 strike by public transit workers. Since then, public transit has been deemed an essential service. There was little dispute across the general public in that instance.
Despite the critical need for educated and skilled young people going forward, public education has not yet reached, in the minds of politicians and the general public, similar priority as an essential service.
The Liberal government has set high priority on bringing in a balanced budget by 2017, and public sector workers are expected to bear the brunt of that cost cutting and savings objective. Therefore, the OSSTF must have known that they would meet a hard line at the negotiations table.
As it is now, these negotiations fall under the new bargaining system introduced by the Liberal government last year in which there are separate processes for local and central union negotiations. However, Durham, Sudbury and Peel boards argue that the three local strikes dealing with issues such as class sizes are central, as such the boards argue that the local strikes could be considered illegal.
We have to conclude that the current contract negotiations between high school teachers and the province must have some holdover from the last round in which the Liberal government put through legislation forbidding teachers to strike. There is no doubt still some bitterness there. This latest maneuver by the education minister will therefore not go down easily among those who had been walking the picket lines in front of their schools for the past six weeks.
We sympathize with the teachers. Theirs is no nine-to-five job. Teaching demands many hours outside the classroom involving lesson planning, reviewing student assignments, communicating with parents, after-school involvement and so on. But, they would have known that was what they signed up for.
It should not be forgotten that after the fractious relationship between teachers and the Mike Harris Conservatives in the mid-1990s, the Liberals under the leadership of Dalton McGuinty went a far way in making up with teachers. That was a hearty thank you for teachers’ support in getting them elected 10 years ago.
The tide had to turn once again at some point and budget constraints have made it so.
Back-to-work legislation is never easy to accept. But the government, as employers, will always have the upper hand in contract negotiations. However, we believe that when the interest of students are held to ransom, as it has over this six-week period, then decisive action must be taken.
Negotiations must, and will, continue. But the teachers’ unions would go a long way to winning public support if at the same time they show overtly that they are not willing to sacrifice students’ classroom time in exchange for union demands.