A commentary by Steven Wilson
In May 2008 the Liberal government in Ontario brokered a deal between the associations which represent the employer school boards and the unions representing the teachers and support staff in schools. This agreement is referred to as the Provincial Discussion Table deal, or PDT deal. That deal was signed by those employers and unions and provided for an increase of 3% in each of the following 4 years as well as bestowing the teachers’ unions with extensive incursions into the right to manage the schools. That is not all it gave. Not spoken about at the time was that it also continued to allow the payment of what is known as ‘increment’: an increase given to each teacher for the first 10 years of her or his career.
It is now August 2012 and those 2008 PDT school board collective agreements are scheduled to expire at the end of the month. Once again the government had scheduled PDT meetings between the employer associations and unions of school board employees. This time however the parties did not reach a PDT agreement. Instead following these meetings, the Premier and Minister let it be known that they reached an agreement with OECTA, the union representing teachers in Catholic schools, and urged that agreement on all other school boards and unions when they negotiate their collective agreements.
Unlike 2008 when the employers and unions signed the PDT agreement, this agreement with OECTA—known as the OECTA MOU for Memorandum of Understanding—is not with the employers but with Laurel Brotten herself, the Minister of Education. The agreement has very real financial savings for the province: wages are frozen; sick days are cut; pay outs of unused sick days at retirement are limited; employees are to take 3 days without pay; and at last the increment is addressed with those cuts not to take effect until the 97th day. Who knows whether those are work days or calendar days and who knows what that means if the teacher starts to work in the 2nd semester? Whatever it precisely means this much is clear: the Minister of Education succeeded in making very real savings and it can come as no surprise that the price she paid to OECTA was in the form of real intrusions into the right to manage the schools. What OECTA has gained is a greater say on who is hired to teach and how the students will be evaluated, no matter all of the work by the Ministry of Education in devising evaluation methods and by the school boards in implementing assessment methods.
Where the 2012 OECTA MOU gives the school boards until December 31, 2012 to work out the renewed collective agreements, the Minister of Education has pronounced that that part of the deal won’t apply: the collective agreements must be put to an end by August 31. August 31 is picked because if the collective agreements are not renewed by then, each pay period thereafter would include some part of the increment which is required as part of the government’s brokered 2008 PDT agreement. To put added pressure on the school boards, the Minister has reminded the school boards that they can be taken over by the province if they have deficits and planted the threatening seeds of take over if they did not apply for conciliation. According to the Education Act that threat is largely groundless as it applies to paying increments for some time following September 1.
To achieve her goal, the Minister has sent out instructions to school boards to apply for conciliation, which is the process to start the countdown to ending the terms and conditions of a collective agreement. In particular, the boards would not have to start to pay the increment starting in September. Her directions included that the application must be made by August 7. There are problems with that date: first August 7 does not even meet the Minister’s countdown to September when all the procedural requirements of the law are considered; as well, there is the obvious fact that it is the summer break and members of the negotiating committees are not necessarily in town. There is no practical likelihood of even meeting to negotiate at this time. The Minster is indifferent to whether the boards and teachers actually negotiate one with the other to work out problems that arose in the previous 4 years. Although the Liberals promote themselves as keeping the education sector free from strikes, there is another aspect of this badgering of boards to apply for conciliation: namely, an application for conciliation is a necessary condition to begin the clock to start the right to strike.
School boards’ commitments are to their students and to their teachers and to their communities. Most of the boards do not agree to implement the unions’ power to run the school in the way Ms Broten gave up in order to gain all of the financial cuts and they also do not want labour disruptions. Many school boards have not applied for conciliation. The Minister has responded tyrannically. The Minister has fantastically written that “hiring practice and diagnostic provisions” of her deal with OECTA are also gains for the employers and that it “is important for you to know that I will be undertaking changes through the authority given me under the Education Act to implement these provisions at the provincial level. To be clear, that means Boards will need to make these changes whether or not the provisions included in OECTA MOU are implemented.”
The Liberal government in Ontario campaigns on its achievements in reaching labour peace in education but at the same time it is the Liberals who are bullying school boards to put the teachers in a strike position: it cannot ride to the rescue without first starting the fire. Perhaps this plays well in the two upcoming by-elections. This government has given up significant rights for school boards to promote the education of their students in exchange for offsetting significant financial savings and then has the audacity to assert that what it has given up is a win for the system. It just isn’t so.