Three Ontario school boards are asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to decide on the legality of high school teachers’ strikes. The Durham, Peel and Rainbow/Sudbury boards believe the strikes are not allowed under the current legislation because “central” rather than local issues are in dispute.
The School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, 2014, also known as Bill 122, sets out a two-tiered bargaining system for Ontario’s education sector, whereby the most costly items like class size and salary are bargained over “centrally” between the provincial government, the association of school boards and the provincial unions. So-called “local” issues such as performance appraisals and grievance procedures are negotiated between individual school boards and union districts.
The new legislation was passed by the Ontario Legislature on April 8, 2014 so is quite new to both teachers’ unions and school boards.
Durham teachers went on strike April 20 followed by those in Rainbow/Sudbury two weeks ago and then those in Peel just last week. I’ve also seen reports that six more boards will be targeted in the coming weeks by the public high school teachers’ union. Moreover, other unions are reportedly growing frustrated at the bargaining table and could follow suit.
Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government and its immediate predecessors under former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty are generally seen as “education friendly” and have been about as generous to teachers as any government I’ve seen in Ontario going back to the 1960s. Despite this, we seem headed for a summer and fall of labour chaos in our education sector.
Teachers’ unions are insatiable. And the more the government gives in to their demands, the more demanding they become. The many concessions made by the McGuinty and Wynne governments in the past have been taken as weakness and emboldened union leaders.
Furthermore, teachers’ unions gave millions of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours last year to help elect a Liberal government. Now they are looking for a return on that investment and they are more likely than not to get one.
There is little doubt in my mind that the teachers will dump their support for the Grits unless Premier Wynne and her education minister, Liz Sandals, cave in and meet substantially all of the unions’ demands. If the government does stand firm, we can expect to see the rapacious unions turn away from the Grits en masse and throw their considerable financial and human-resource support to Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats in the 2018 election.
The government is, of course, in a bind. They have squandered billions on eHealth, ORNGE and the power plants and managed the 2008 financial crisis and following recession poorly. Not surprisingly, therefore, they now find themselves with a stubborn structural budget deficit and rating agencies threatening to downgrade the considerable provincial debt. And any downgrade in the province’s debt will almost certainly be costly and will itself add to the deficit.
In the 2012–13 school year, we saw teacher walkouts and work-to-rule campaigns that some describe as “labour chaos.” Not withstanding those trying days, I suspect that, if Premier Wynne and Ms. Sandals stand firm, we haven’t seen anything like what we can expect in the upcoming months.
By so eagerly accepting the largesse of the unions in the past couple of general elections and several by-elections, Ontario Liberals have sown the wind and must now reap the whirlwind of teachers’ buyer-remorse.