By Doug Hallett
MPP Liz Sandals says she has no idea what will happen when Queen’s Park resumes sitting Monday to deal with the teacher contract issue, but she insists the government’s early recall of the legislature is necessary and not a byelection ploy.
For anyone who has been following the province’s negotiations with teacher unions since February, “it’s not a surprise . . . that we ended up in this place this week,” she said in an interview.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath has accused the Liberal government of bringing in teacher wage freeze legislation now to appeal to voters in two Sept. 6 byelections. “Just utter and complete nonsense,” Sandals said Wednesday of the provincial NDP leader’s allegation that the wage freeze legislation for teachers was motivated by byelections in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan.
utomatic wage hike
With three-year teacher contracts across the province all expiring Aug. 31, the wage freeze legislation to be tabled Monday is needed so that school boards won’t be in the “terrible” position next month of having to pay for automatic wage increases that “they have no way of funding,” she said.
Given the stances the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have taken up to now on the issue, Sandals said she “doesn’t have a clue” what will happen next week at Queen’s Park.
As for the possible impact of the issue on the two byelections, she didn’t want to speculate.
“I think that remains to be seen. I never prejudge the electorate.”
She said, though, that she’s been knocking on some doors in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding in support of the Liberal candidate and has been “getting positive feedback to what we are doing.”
Unions representing teacher in the province’s Catholic and French-speaking schools have agreed to a two-year deal reached between the province and the Catholic teachers’ union in early July. This leaves only the two English public teacher unions – the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) – opposing the province, Sandals said.
She said that while the secondary teachers federation has “been informally keeping in touch with the process,” the elementary teachers federation representatives walked away from the bargaining table in February after about an hour “and haven’t been seen since.”
Sandals said she’s surprised at ETFO’s stance, given that its stance during the last round of negotiations three years ago has led to ETFO teachers still making less money than other teachers in publicly funded Ontario schools.
“I was surprised at the strategy that they immediately walked away from the table, because it didn’t work very well last time.”
The three most contentious issues in the teacher negotiations, she said, have been allowable sick days, payment of accumulated unused sick leave on retirement and whether young teachers can move up the pay grid in spite of a two-year wage freeze.
The reduction in annual sick days from 20 to 10, which the Catholic teachers’ union agreed to in July, is consistent with contracts for Ontario government workers, Sandals said.
The deal reached with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) also ends the accumulation of unused sick leave for payouts at retirement as a so-called retirement gratuity.
This practice has created a “huge unfunded liability” at many school boards, although the local public and Catholic boards negotiated it out of contracts for its new teachers year ago, she said.
“Everybody’s contract needs to look like the Upper Grand and Wellington Catholic” contracts, said Sandals, who was a longtime trustee on the local public school board before becoming an MPP in 2003.
The deal reached with OECTA allows young teachers to continue to move up the pay grid, but OECTA agreed to other changes that will offset this cost, she said. These changes include some unpaid days off in the second year of the contract for all teachers and principals, as well as some foregone grants related to certain “staffing issues.”
Horwath has been making an issue of bonuses paid to 98 per cent of managers in the provincial civil service, arguing that pay freezes should apply to everyone.
Sandals said the Liberal government plans to look at this issue, which has its origin in changes made by the last Progressive Conservative government. The government led by former premier Mike Harris decided to “split up” the pay of all senior managers so that part is salary and part is a pay-for-performance bonus, she said.
Local ETFO and OSSTF spokespersons couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but the unions’ provincial websites carry recent messages from the two union presidents.
OSSTF president Ken Coran says that the government is “showing contempt for the bargaining process” through its proposed legislation and that the OSSTF is preparing for a legal challenge.
ETFO president Sam Hammond says the proposed legislation is “unprecedented and goes far beyond any wage restraint or back-to-work legislation ever enacted in Ontario.
“This legislation is obviously designed to put politics, not students, first. The government is putting its own short-term political gain ahead of students. This creates chaos and instability in the education system. It doesn’t benefit students and their parents,” says Hammond’s statement on Monday.