Many Questions Surrounding New Bargaining Process

Commentary, Education, Ontario, Rob Leone (historic), Robert Murray, Uncategorized

Well that didn’t take long!

Ontario’s school boards, teachers’ unions and Ministry of Education recently began bargaining in an effort to reach agreements across the education sector. The previous agreements, imposed on the sector in 2012 by the McGuinty government’s Putting Students First Act, expired on Aug. 31, 2014. Within less than a month, one of the teachers’ unions representing the majority of Ontario’s public high school teachers, OSSTF, declared an impasse and now provincial bargaining in that sector has stalled.

This early sign of trouble has created angst among many in the sector as this current round of collective bargaining is the first process being guided by a new framework. Back in April of this year, Ontario passed Bill 122, the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act. This Act enshrined a new framework under which the education sector would collectively bargain that would, for the first time, see school boards, the Ontario government and teachers’ unions sit as equal bargaining agents at a central provincial table for key financial and compensation issues.

Many blame the horrendous experience of 2012 as justification for Bill 122, but the flaws in the process existed well before the McGuinty Government unilaterally changed the rules. It took nearly a year from the initial signing of the ill-conceived OECTA Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Ontario Government to begin repairing relationships in the education sector. The biggest single factor that led to a slight improvement in relations was the resignation of McGuinty and the election of Kathleen Wynne as Premier. Wynne made a new bargaining framework a priority for her government, and Bill 122 was the culmination of that initial promise.

The new framework, in many ways, codified the process that had existed prior to the OECTA MoU, known as the PDT, or Provincial Discussion Table, process. School boards, represented by their provincial associations and teachers’ unions would bargain major compensation and fiscal issues at a provincial table, while the government sat as a neutral third-party mediator. The PDT process was done on a good-faith handshake between the three parties, as school board associations (OCSTA, OPSBA, AFOCSC and ACEPO) were not legal bargaining agents under Ontario’s Education Act. The ambiguities of the PDT process were what allowed then-Education Minister Laurel Broten to disregard the good-faith nature of the PDT process and sign an unprecedented unilateral agreement on behalf of the government with one of the teachers’ unions.

Under the provisions of Bill 122, school board associations, teachers’ unions and the government sit as equal parties at the central table and are de jure bargaining agents. This, however, is not the end of the story.

There remain a number of questions surrounding this new bargaining process and just how much goodwill there will be when an impasse is reached. According to the new framework, all three parties must agree and ratify a deal before it is binding. This is meant to prevent two parties, like say the government and unions, from signing an agreement without the consent of the school boards. The problem here is that school board associations are really not built for bargaining and are at a natural disadvantage. Their budgets are small, they do not have internal capacity to support bargaining, and this new bill automatically creates a “David vs. Goliath” situation where incredibly well-funded unions and a powerful government face off against comparably weak school boards.

Also interesting this time around is that teachers’ unions are unlikely to sign any agreement where they will not see some kind of salary increase. Minister of Education Liz Sandals has said she is open to the idea of an increase as long as the overall agreement represents a “net zero” to the Ontario budget. Does this mean, as in the BC context, class sizes and composition are now on the table in order to pay for an increase in teacher wages?

After campaigning against modifying class sizes, the teachers’ unions and the Wynne government have publicly taken stands against increasing them.  In doing so, they have taken one modification off the table that could alleviate budget demands for improved salary, benefits, and supports for teachers.  With school boards having already received their Grant for Student Needs funding allocations from the government, very little additional money is available to meet the demands of teachers. 

Thus, while education bargaining has started off with an amicable process among bargaining partners, there remains a rather large financial gap that may well lead to disruption in the classroom moving forward.