In Dena Morrison's words, “they created the big stick in Bill 115, and they used it.”
That was the vice-chair of the Rainbow District School Board's reaction to Education Minister Laurel Broten's Jan. 3 announcement she's imposing two-year contracts on many of the province's teachers and education workers.
Broten was able to take the action thanks to the contentious Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act, which was passed by the province in September and which in her announcement today, the minister described as a “lightning rod.”
The move affects all unions that failed to deliver ratified and approved collective agreements by midnight Dec. 31. All 65 locally negotiated and ratified agreements submitted to the province before the deadline were approved.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which came to a last-minute tentative deal with the province, has been given until Jan. 14 to ratify the agreement at a local level.
All new contracts are retroactive to Sept. 1, 2012, and will expire Aug. 31, 2014.
Morrison, the chair of the board's labour relations committee, said the board attempted to come to local agreements with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO).
These two unions had not signed provincial agreements with the province.
However, given the parameters school boards were forced to work under, it became clear a deal wouldn't be possible, Morrison said.
Despite this, the Rainbow board sent a letter to the province last fall, asking them to repeal Bill 115, as the board believes in locally negotiated agreements, she said.
Now that the full power of Bill 115 has been brought to bear to impose contracts and force a resolution of sorts to an issue that has dogged the province for months, the government will move to repeal the legislation at the end of the month, Broten said.
“Rhetoric and advertising have turned the act into a lightning rod,” she said at a press conference. “This is unfortunate, since our goal has always been to preserve local bargaining, a world-class education system and some 20,000 teaching and support staff jobs.
“So given that the Putting Students First Act was only ever intended as a one-time measure by this government, it is important, as a sign of good faith, and our commitment to future negotiations, that the act be repealed.”
In response to reporters' questions, Broten said she hoped by repealing the act, teachers would end their boycott of extracurricular activities.
Whether that will actually occur remains to be seen. But Morrison said she thinks Broten and the government realized that leaving Bill 115 in place could have disastrous effects on the province's relationship with its teachers.
“It's an acknowledgement that this was a one-off, unique situation, and that they don't intend, of course, to make that a permanent piece of legislation, which, of course, would cause impediments in any future bargaining.”
Broten also said Jan. 3 that the province plans to “develop a new centralized bargaining model for future rounds of negotiations.”
As bargaining has traditionally been the responsibility of school boards — not the province — Morrison said this statement definitely caught her ear as, in her mind, it raises questions about school boards' future role in labour negotiations.
Now that contracts have been imposed on teachers and education workers, Broten said any further strike actions would be illegal, as the workers are no longer in a strike position.
To protest the ongoing labour strife, both OSSTF and ETFO have been withdrawing from voluntary activities such as supervising extracurricular activities. In December, ETFO also held rotating one-day strikes across the province.
Morrison said it remains to be seen what the unions' next move will be.
A decade of goodwill has been squandered in just under 10 months by this education minister.
“I think what we're all worried about ... would be the continuing impact on extracurricular activities, which really do provide the full-rounded educational experience for many of our students.”
James Clyke, president of OSSTF District 3 Rainbow, said he's not surprised Broten chose to impose a contract on his members, but was surprised she plans to repeal Bill 115.
He said if Broten thinks things will be “business as usual” in schools now that she's used the bill, she's got another think coming.
“That's a bit of a problem,” Clyke said.
“If those things were in reverse, and she said she'd repeal the act and then come down and sit down at the table and actually open up collective bargaining, like it should be under the labour relations act, then I would have certainly preferred that.”
That sentiment was echoed by ETFO's provincial president, Sam Hammond.
“We will consider all of our options,” he said. “You cannot expect, based on what this government has done, based on what this minister did today, that it is going to be business as usual in schools going into the new year.”
Further to that, Hammond called the bill a “disgraceful misuse of government power” and that “a decade of goodwill has been squandered in just under 10 months by this education minister.”
Hammond also said that Broten “will not erase the stain of Bill 115 simply by removing it after it is used.”
In response to a reporter's question about whether the union will continue to boycott extracurriculars, Hammond said he'll be in talks with his leadership team next week to figure out how ETFO “will go forward from this point.”
When asked about the ETFO's plans to participate in a one-day, provincewide walkout, Hammond said the union is “considering every option available to us.”
The OSSTF will be doing much the same thing, Clyke said. He'll be attending provincial union meetings in Toronto next week as well where next steps will be debated.
It's very likely OSSTF members will continue to boycott extracurricular activities, Clyke said, and will probably participate in a provincewide, one-day walkout, regardless of the legality of such an action.
He said OSSTF members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the day of action.
“I don't know why we would have voted for it if we weren't going to use it at some point.”
More broadly, Broten's use of Bill 115 marks a bad day for all workers in the province, Clyke said.
“This is not just about teachers and support staff,” he said. “This is about what the government can do to intercede in anybody's collective bargaining process across the province.”
ETFO Rainbow local vice-president Barb Blasutti was not immediately available to speak about the issue.
Liberal leadership candidate Kathleen Wynne also weighed in on the issue during a conference call with reporters Jan. 3.
In response to a question from Northern Life, she said the province needs to repair its relationship with teachers, support staff and school boards.
“I've said consistently through this leadership discussion that it's a high priority of mine to bring in all of the partners, and to work together to create a better process for the next time around,” Wynne said.
“That's my position, and it remains so. I'm glad that Bill 115 is going to be repealed, so we can actually focus on that next process, and make sure it's sustainable.
“We've got a fiscal reality, but I really believe that a respectful dialogue is what's needed.”