Teachers back at bargaining table

By 
  • February 4, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - How much your kid’s teacher makes and whether or not home room will be held on a picket line is likely to be determined at provincial framework discussions being held now as an overture to teacher-school board collective bargaining later this year.

Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne has invited unions and school trustee associations to provincial talks beginning Jan. 28. The talks began with the Canadian Union of Public Employees who represent support staff. Discussions with teachers are tentatively scheduled to begin Feb. 8.

“From our perspective, it’s to have labour peace so we can continue to progress,” Wynne told The Catholic Register. “It’s very important for public confidence in public education that we have that peaceful environment for their kids to learn.”

 The teachers, however, are not so sure centralized, province-wide bargaining is a good idea. The presidents of Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association locals were scheduled to vote on whether or not to attend the talks after The Catholic Register’s press time.

The province brokered labour peace in the schools four years ago by laying out broad conditions for contracts between school boards and unions. By agreeing to contracts which paid teachers $84,000 a year at the top of the scale and increased teacher preparation time, school boards became eligible for funding for extra teachers and programs.

Legally, contracts can only be negotiated between local school boards and the provincial unions. On the Catholic side, OECTA is the sole bargaining agent for 36,000 teachers and manages more than 80 collective agreements. However, since 1998 the provincial treasury has become the only source of income to school boards who renounced their right to collect property taxes to be eligible for funding.

Both Wynne and OECTA president Elaine MacNeil claim the province-wide discussions do not amount to centralized bargaining.

Since local school boards can only negotiate contracts which the province will fund, some form of centralized bargaining which includes the Ministry of Education would be a good thing, said Paul Whitehead, former president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association. 

“If those settlements are in keeping with what the ministry is prepared to pay, and that’s one of the implications of having province-wide bargaining, then you won’t have a situation where a school board is adversely affected by collective agreements that are reached elsewhere that then flow into their area but they can’t afford it,” Whitehead said.

But for teachers, getting agreement early at the provincial level on big ticket items — salaries and benefits — could be bad news for local negotiations over local issues, such as rules around transferring teachers from school to school or sick time.

“Once you settle money issues and benefit issues there will be no leverage for local issues,” said OECTA’s MacNeil.

Wynne wouldn’t comment on whether the centralized, province-wide pre-bargaining would deliver relatively rich contracts to teachers.

“What we have to look at is the cost both financial and in terms of the progress in the system — the cost of labour unrest,” she said. “You know, 26 million lost learning days under the previous government, it’s pretty hard to quantify the value of that.”

Though teachers are well paid, they deserve it, said Wynne.

“Teachers in this province earn every dollar they make.”

Whitehead doesn’t believe the move toward centralized bargaining undercuts the autonomy or responsibility of local school boards.

“Trustees still have a whole lot of responsibilities in terms of setting budgets, deciding what kinds of things we’re going to do, what kinds of things we’re not going to do, what are our priorities going to be,” he said.

Though Whitehead and his own London District Catholic School Board complained loudly four years ago that Queen’s Park was forcing the board into an unaffordable contract with teachers, the veteran trustee is on-side with province-wide discussions for 2008.

“It worked very well in the previous round,” he said.

On the union side, MacNeil says she understands the desire for labour peace from the points of view of the government and parents.

“I guess if you’re a parent you’re going to want to support whatever is going to lead to your child being able to go to school every day, uninterrupted,” she said.

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