Amid acrimony between the secondary teachers’ union and school boards, three local strikes with no end in sight and worries the school year may be in jeopardy for 70,000 teens — finally, some positive news.
After a two-week standstill, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation is returning to the provincial bargaining table on Wednesday.
“We’re going, and we’ve both agreed to another mediator,” said Paul Elliott, president of the OSSTF, in an interview Sunday.
While the move is a positive step, Elliott said talks will remain challenging. “We’re dealing with some (contract) strips that the school boards are adamant about hanging on to,” he said, which include increasing class sizes.
News of the talks comes as the federation prepares to begin work-to-rule in two public school boards — Halton and Ottawa — after launching full-out strikes in Durham, Peel and Rainbow/Sudbury.
Michael Barrett, head of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and chair of the Durham public board, is pleased the union is returning to talks, and also credited the new mediator with restarting the talks by “suggesting a different tactic — and I would say that the OSSTF was receptive to that.”
Barrett noted local talks will resume in Durham as well next week, as soon as a labour relations board hearing has wrapped up.
The strike in Durham, the longest of the three, is now entering its fifth week.
The labour board hearing, which began last Thursday in Toronto, is to determine whether the strikes are unlawful. The three boards hit by strikes allege they were called based on central bargaining issues, not local ones, which is not allowed under new legislation.
Under Bill 122, education bargaining is now two-tiered, with unions, school boards and the province negotiating costly items such as class size or salary, with non-monetary issues hammered out locally.
At the labour relations board, the school boards have argued the local high school teacher unions walked off the job because of class size and other central issues. The union, however, says that’s not the case and that local talks were getting nowhere.
High school teachers hit the picket lines in Durham April 20, leaving 21,000 students out of class for a month now. Sudbury students have been out of school since April 27 and those in Peel since May 4. In total, almost 70,000 teens have been affected.
On Friday, the province asked its Education Relations Commission to determine if the school year is in jeopardy in any of the three boards. A decision is expected this week, which could pave the way for back-to-work legislation.
In the meantime, because there has been some progress with the other four boards the OSSTF initially targeted for job action, Elliott said the union decided to go with a work-to-rule in Halton and Ottawa, where teachers won’t fill in report card comments and refuse other largely administrative duties.
“In Thunder Bay and Waterloo, we’ve seen significant movement happening” at the local bargaining table, said Elliott. “We are watching what’s happening there, and still hoping to see something happening in Ottawa and Halton.”
Elliott said the new bargaining legislation has led to “interesting dynamics between the school boards, the Ministry of Education and ourselves.
“There’s been an interesting dynamic at the bargaining table, but I’m not sure what the reason is that we couldn’t come to a deal three months ago, and why it’s taking so long to get some movement at the table.”
Meanwhile, the province’s public elementary teachers are staging a work-to-rule action but have not called any strikes. No central talks are scheduled. The province’s Catholic and French teachers continue to bargain centrally.