Kristin Rushowy / Robert Benzie thestar.com
Ontario has reached a key two-year deal with Catholic teachers freezing wages and forcing three unpaid days off — but separate school boards are refusing to sign on over fears management has given up too much power over hiring.
While the Liberals touted the 17-page agreement with the 45,000-member Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) — the first the government has reached after other unions walked away from tense talks — the move by representatives of the province’s Catholic boards cast a shadow.
“We are dismayed at the dangerous precedent this agreement sets,” Kathy Burtnik, vice-president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, said Thursday.
The association left negotiations just after 11 p.m. Wednesday night over concerns the deal on the table “did not represent the best interest of students.”
Burtnik said they were unaware talks continued between the province and the union until it was announced at Queen’s Park the next morning.
She said the association is waiting to see what the ministry does next and wondered whether the deal would be legislated, essentially forcing Catholic school boards to accept it.
“At no point were we informed or was it even intimated that a potential agreement could be made between OECTA and the ministry, and we are absolutely opposed to any agreement made without our involvement.”
Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) expressed concern that negotiations continued without the trustees’ input.
“They feel usurped,” MacLeod said.
The provisional deal means the Catholic teachers have broken ranks with other unions that walked away from provincial-level talks, putting pressure on them to return to the bargaining table.
OECTA president Kevin O’Dwyer said the negotiations were the most difficult he has been involved with in 20 years, but called the agreement “fair and reasonable” and said it contained “creative solutions” to the government’s fiscal constraints.
“It has been a tough road,” said Education Minister Lauren Broten, whose government faces a $15-billion deficit.
“But I’m pleased that after months of difficult talks, we were able to reach an agreement with OECTA,” said Broten, whose young sons attend a Catholic school. “There is a pathway forward where many thought there was no path.”
The deal gives the union more say in the hiring of occasional teachers, as well as individual teachers the right to determine what kind of diagnostic tests their students should undergo — decisions normally made by principals and superintendents.
Senior Liberal officials said they were “flabbergasted” the trustees bolted over the issue of hiring supply teachers, noting that the Catholic boards had agreed on more than 90 per cent of the items discussed.
“We’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for them,” said an insider, adding the arrangement makes the boards’ fiscal challenges easier to surmount.
The contract, which also affects principals and vice-principals, imposes a two-year wage freeze, changes to the grid that boosts salary based on experience and seniority — although allowing the newest teachers a small wage increase on that grid — as well as 10 sick days, down from 20, and an end to payouts of unused sick days at retirement.
If all unions accepted that last provision, it would remove a $1.7 billion liability from the books of Ontario school boards.
Teachers will also take three unpaid professional development days in the second year of the deal — days students would already have off so no instructional time will be lost.
The end of retirement payouts will be felt in Toronto, one of the few Catholic boards to still provide the costly perk that can be as much as half a year’s salary.
Thursday’s provisional deal, which was ratified by the union’s provincial executive early Thursday, is significant for the Liberals.
As the self-styled “education premier,” Dalton McGuinty — whose wife Terri teaches at a Toronto separate school and is an OECTA member — has never faced a teachers’ strike since taking power in 2003.
It also comes against the backdrop of the province in tough negotiations with Ontario’s 25,000 doctors.
Ontario Medical Association Dr. Doug Weir said Thursday that the settlement is proof bargaining can work and urged the government “to come back to the negotiating table with Ontario’s doctors.”
Some teachers, meanwhile, were quick to criticize OECTA and the deal via social media; on Twitter, one called it “a hard blow to solidarity.”
Four unions — those representing Ontario’s elementary teachers, secondary teachers, French teachers and school support staff — have planned a joint news conference for Friday morning in downtown Toronto.
As of Sept. 1, teacher unions could be in a legal strike position and a day of protest is already planned for the new school year by public elementary teachers.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said his union had already discussed plans in the event OECTA reached a deal.
“There had been rumours for quite some time that a deal was imminent,” he said in an interview. “The provincial executive has had some preliminary discussions about what steps would be taken if a deal was reached, and the executive will be meeting again early next week to finalize plans.”
However, OECTA’s O’Dwyer told reporters Thursday that in agreeing to the wage freeze, “our members understand what that fiscal restraint is and I think I articulated that in a number of interviews that we understand and are prepared to have a wage freeze for that two-year period.”
He said the deal allows Catholic families to know that this fall, “they’ll have uninterrupted class and instruction. I think that’s good for Ontario. I think that’s good for students, parents, and it’s also good for our members.”
New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson (Timmins-James Bay) implored the Liberals “not to take this as a victory lap and flaunt it as a pattern for what’s going to happen with the other unions.”