By Dianne Cornish, REVIEW STAFF
The Ontario government’s pledge to repeal Bill 115 after using it Thursday to implement contracts with all teachers and support staff in the province isn’t getting a passing grade from Ontario’s two major teachers’ unions, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). Union heads at both the local and national levels reacted with bitterness and anger to Education Minister Laurel Broten’s announcement of the new two-year collective bargaining contract, imposed under the authority of the Putting Students First Act (Bill 115) after the two unions failed to ratify collective agreements with local school boards before the government-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2012.
“By saying that she will repeal Bill 115 after using it to trample our rights, the education minister has admitted that the legislation is deeply flawed,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond. “Minister Broten will not erase the stain of Bill 115 simply by removing it, after it is used.”
Union leaders have continually argued that the bill infringes on their democratic rights to collective bargaining because it imposes a framework for contract settlements, including a two-year wage freeze, an end to retirement payouts of up to six months of unused sick days and a cut in annual sick days from 20 to 10. The government counters that the measures are necessary to protect the gains made in education in recent years, such as reduced classroom sizes and the implementation of full-day kindergarten, as well as to help address the province’s $14-billion deficit.
During her announcement, Broten said the bill was used to implement the contracts on the teachers because parents deserved to be given “certainty and clarity” about the education system in Ontario. She also suggested that the government’s move to repeal the bill by the end of January will hopefully clear the way for teachers to once again become involved as volunteers in extracurricular activities.
The unions put a ban on teacher involvement in extracurricular activities last month in protest of Bill 115. The ETFO also staged a series of one-day walkouts from public elementary schools in December.
Lisa Hammond, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Teacher Local of the ETFO, said she is both “disappointed and angry” with Broten’s announcement. She characterized the Minister’s statement about the return of teachers to extracurricular activities as “a condescending, manipulative statement” and said Broten is “dreaming” if she thinks teachers will look kindly on the government for repealing the legislation after using it to impose contracts.
“It’s all about politics,” Hammond charged as she accused the Minister of playing politics by promising to repeal the bill, “clearing the way” for the next Liberal leader, who will be chosen in late January. It’s a calculated move to ensure that the new leader won’t have to deal with the controversial bill and can instead devote his/her efforts to getting the Liberals re-elected in the next provincial election, she said.
The Local president said teachers are going to be very much engaged in the next provincial election. “This will not be forgotten,” she said, of the government’s action.
She also expressed disappointment that the government didn’t accept an offer made by ETFO’s Hammond on Dec. 21 to delay any action on implementing contracts until after the Liberal leadership race in return for no further job action by the teachers. “I thought that would be a reasonable step back,” she said.
Sam Hammond, a cousin of the Local president, said, “You cannot expect that it will be business as usual in schools going into the new year.”
Teachers’ unions have warned that forcing new agreements on their members, which collectively number about 126,000, would not happen without repercussions and said they would launch political protests to fight it.
Broten advised during her announcement that teachers cannot legally strike under the terms of the new agreements, but Lisa Hammond said, “We don’t consider it (political action in the form of a one-day walkout) to be the same thing.”
A National Post article reported that OSSTF president Ken Coran has said his members have already voted in favour of staging one-day political protests if the government were to impose a new contract. The article also said that the protest could include taking days of action–which may, or may not, include walkouts, but can be held any day of the week. Coran is planning to meet with local public high school union presidents next Wednesday (Jan. 9) in Toronto to discuss what their next steps will be. Chantal Mancini, president of the OSSTF Hamilton-Wentworth District 21, plans to attend the meeting, where she expects topics will include teacher involvement in extracurricular activities, possible political protests and other steps “to see where we go forward.”
She was highly critical of the government’s action of imposing new agreements, “We are going back to working conditions we did not negotiate.”
Bitter about the government’s interference with the union’s right to negotiate with its employer, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, Mancini insisted that had negotiations been allowed to proceed with the board, without the restrictions of Bill 115 hanging over negotiators’ heads, the local union and school board could have come to an agreement that would have respected the government’s fiscal realities. “I’m not surprised what the government did (in implementing the bill), but it was completely unnecessary,” she said.
Also adding his voice to those critical of the government was the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, which recently reached a deal with the province for its 55,000 workers, including educational assistants, early childhood educators, instructors, custodians, librarians and secretaries. Noting that the government is retreating from the unpopular bill while at the same time using its power, undemocratically, to implement collective agreements, Fred Hahn said, “It’s like the government thinks it can throw away the hammer after using it, and get away with the crime.”