TORONTO – Ontario students are heading back to class, but teachers may be nearing a “perpetual state of bargaining” as a lingering effect of new legislation that has also led to millions in extra costs.
The last set of teacher and education worker contracts expired in 2014 and what followed was an unusually long round of talks due to the new legislation. It was the first time unions were to reach central deals with the government, then local deals with each school board across the province.
The length of bargaining led to controversy for the Liberal government, after it was revealed that three unions were promised $2.5 million to cover their negotiation costs. That was in addition to more than $1 million the government gave unions in previous rounds of bargaining because preparations for the new legislation also made them lengthier. And it was in addition to $4.6 million the government gave to school boards.
It is also in addition to more than $1 million the government spent on its own negotiation costs, The Canadian Press has learned.
The government would not say in October 2015 how much it had spent on bargaining, but internal Ministry of Education emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request show staff discussing how to answer the question, saying, “Only include rooms, meals, IT etc and not consultants.”
A subsequent FOI request shows that the government’s negotiating costs from April 2014 to December 2015 were $1.17 million, including $838,000 on meeting rooms, $71,000 on accommodations, $21,000 on meals and $144,000 on consultants.
The five contracts were sole sourced.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said three consultants are former educators “and seasoned negotiators” and two other consultants helped establish a new benefits trust.
“As this was the first time going through this unique transformation, that no other province had ever done, these consultants provided valuable support during bargaining,” Nicole McInerney said in a statement.
Central deals were reached in August 2015 with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, the following month with the French teachers’ union and with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario in November.
But more than a year after those first two major central deals were inked, 17 out of 470 local deals are still outstanding.
“I’m just shocked that we settled that central deal for our teachers a year ago…and we’re still bargaining locally,” said OSSTF president Paul Elliott.
With this round of contracts expiring Aug. 31, 2017, talks to reach the next deal should start in the spring, which doesn’t leave much time, he said.
“If those deals aren’t settled and you enter into negotiations, I would speculate that the boards would … just wait until the central deal is done and then continue with their local bargaining. So you’re in a perpetual state of bargaining.”
The ministry conducted a review of the legislation and various parties such as the teachers’ unions offered input as to how it could be improved. During the last round it took six months just for everyone to decide which issues were central and which were local, Elliott said. OSSTF wants to see the number of central table items limited to speed the process along.
The legislation required unions to give five days’ strike notice, but the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said they should be required to specify whether job action will be a full or partial withdrawal of services.
“We need to be able to know to prepare schools and students (for) what’s happening,” said association president Laurie French.
McInerney said the government is reviewing the feedback, but wouldn’t commit to making any changes.