Greater Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

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Kennedy on thin ice?

Moira MacDonald
Toronto Sun
Monday, January 3, 2005

Ontario's Education Minister has stickhandled through a lot of problems, but he's in for a major battle with teacher unions this year, writes Moira MacDonald

Before the provincial Liberals were elected in 2003, I predicted no matter who won that election, within two years, if not sooner, the province's teacher unions and school boards would again be crying foul.

Since then, school boards have been fairly tempered -- maybe because Education Minister Gerard Kennedy has been wise enough to offer them a somewhat influential spot inside the tent, which they've accepted.

But that strategy has not worked so far with unions, and the battle lines between them and the province started being drawn last summer. That was shortly after the government announced its grants to school boards, which contained enough for about a 2% salary increase for teachers.

Rhonda Kimberley-Young, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, announced last August that "two won't do." Shortly after, all teacher contracts in the province expired.

Technically, the province has little to do with contract negotiations, as these are supposed to be done between school boards and union locals. But that's just a myth.

In practice, each group -- school boards, unions and the province (which funds education) -- works with some form of province-wide co-ordination or strategy, making contract talks in the education sector provincial in all but name.

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, at the end of November, applied to the labour ministry for conciliation in every single union local, in a bid to push ahead with its demand that all teachers be given 200 minutes of preparation time within the regular school day each week -- meaning more teachers must be hired to cover those who are prepping.

Conciliation is what happens when two sides in a labour dispute reach an impasse. It is also mandatory to go through conciliation before proceeding to a strike or lockout. The ETFO is clearly ready to go to the ramparts over prep time.

As well, besides provincially rejecting any 2% wage hike before even hitting the bargaining table, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has been increasingly critical of Kennedy. They've also gone to the labour ministry, filing a complaint against the education minister for alleged "interference."

Provincial roundtable

Kennedy had written to the OSSTF executive, asking it to meet with him at a provincial roundtable of teacher unions and school board trustee associations on "teacher workload," which ultimately gets bargained during contract time. The OSSTF did not like the fact Kennedy dared write to union locals directly without the union bosses' say-so.

Contract talks a local matter? Hardly.

So 2005 is shaping up to be the McGuinty Liberal government's make-or-break year in education, one of the portfolios it most wants to succeed in.

It produced a few tasty morsels early in its mandate to placate teacher unions, which had been highly supportive during the election campaign. One of those was cancellation of the so-called "teacher testing" program, which didn't cost a dime. But now the unions are growing impatient for the Liberals to show them some serious money.

Delaying tactic

The Liberals also vowed in their election platform to turn the Ontario College of Teachers into a body "comprised mostly of working teachers" -- which could leave the college dominated by teachers loyal first to their unions, rather than to the public interest the college is supposed to protect. Word on the street is that Kennedy is delaying making this final change as a carrot to get the unions to play ball with him on contract issues.

As a longtime hockey player, Kennedy knows a few things about stickhandling through a lot of opposition. But few in government have ever tussled with Ontario teacher unions and emerged unscathed -- and playing their game never seems to have improved the odds.

Now please, could we give up this farce about local bargaining?