When it comes to teacher negotiations, the Tories are facing a lose/lose situation

ANALYSIS: The Ford government seems bent on trying to stay out of the headlines until after the federal election — but the province’s teachers may make that impossible 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 25, 2019
a person at a podium
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, has called on the government to begin serious negotiations about the next collective-bargaining agreement. (John Michael McGrath)

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The union president for Ontario’s high-school teachers is tired of waiting for someone to sit down at the other side of the table — so the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has decided to start ringing the bell to remind Queen’s Park that, while the legislature may be recessed, that doesn’t mean ministers get to skip their homework.

“The government claims they are engaged in good-faith bargaining, while engaging in the exact opposite,” Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, told reporters Tuesday at Queen’s Park. “They have tried to sabotage and derail negotiations with delaying tactics … this government has rigged the system from the outset.”

Bischof also called on the provincial government to begin serious negotiations with the union about their next collective-bargaining agreement and laid out what the union is looking for in this round of bargaining. Arguing that, over the long term, teacher’s compensation hasn’t generally exceeded inflation anyway, Bischof says that the OSSTF will be looking for simple cost-of-living increases in pay for their next contract — some kind of formula-based settlement that will peg teacher pay to the consumer-price index and take the political wrangling out of teacher compensation.

That may sound like something that should come as music to the government’s ears, but there’s a catch: the OSSTF also wants Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives to restore teacher positions cut during their first year in power.

In an unusual-for-Ontario move, the OSSTF has made these demands public, posting its negotiating documents online. Prior rounds of negotiations, including those with the more union-friendly Liberal government, were generally kept confidential.

And other unions are also starting to raise the stakes for the government. On Tuesday, the custodians, administrators, and early-childhood educators represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees announced a work-to-rule campaign that could start as early as next week — even though the government returned to the bargaining table Wednesday.

The Tories have a needle to thread: they’ll likely want to try to keep union negotiations off the front page during the federal election (those headlines could harm the chances of Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives with Ontario voters), but they will also likely not want to be perceived as having given away too much in negotiations.

The government has changed its position a number of times since the spring budget, however. The estimates for the province’s deficit, for example, have shrunk dramatically; the final number for the 2018 deficit has now been pegged at $7.4 billion — half what the Ford government claimed it would be at its highest (given, the 2018 fiscal year has been a bit of a roller coaster, as it spanned two governments and saw multiple major policy changes). As recently as the 2019 spring budget, the government was projecting a deficit of $11.7 billion for 2018 and of $10.3 billion for 2019. The revised estimate for 2018 means that, unless there’s another recession, the Tories should be in a better position to achieve their goal of balancing the budget before the next election.

The 2019 budget also projected a spending freeze in education for 2020 — no new money relative to the 2019 fiscal year, which itself saw a relatively small $700 million increase in spending. To put that another way: the public-education file proved contentious for the Tories this year, when it’s been spending more money than it did in 2018 (although not enough to keep teachers from being let go by school boards). The plan, for now, is for the government to spend zero new dollars next year, which will almost certainly create more acrimony.

“The only resolution for this that’s good for students, good for the system, good for stability in this province — the only resolution is going to be found at the bargaining table,” Bischof said.

Minister of Education Stephen Lecce maintains that the government is committed to reaching a fair deal with teachers’ unions and protecting student-learning outcomes. Lecce told Steve Paikin on The Agenda earlier this month that the government is open to reversing some of the staffing-level changes if unions or school boards can propose cost savings elsewhere.

“We’re negotiating in real time, and I’ve actually called on all partners, trustees, associations, and unions in good faith to bring forth innovative ideas,” Lecce said. “So if we can come up with offsets, I’d like to see that happen.”

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