The union representing Ontario’s elementary school teachers says that a deal with the province was within reach last Friday, but negotiations fell through after the government tabled “impossible options” at the last minute.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday afternoon—two days before teachers are set to take part in a province-wide strike—Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond said that negotiators were close to an agreement on “three or four key issues.”
“An agreement was also within reach on maintaining the long-standing regulation that ensures fair and transparent hiring processes for occasional teachers, but government negotiators suddenly introduced demands for major concessions,” he said.
“Frankly our negotiating team was absolutely stunned at the eleventh hour change in their position.”
Hammond suggested that the Ontario government was “willing to scuttle agreements” in order to erode public support in their job action.
“ETFO, its 83,000 members and the public have to question what the (Doug) Ford government’s motivation was for change tactics when we were that close to an agreement at the table.”
Salary increases, Hammond said, was not one of the issues discussed during the three days of negotiations.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce had previously said that the union was prioritizing wages during the negotiations. The province is currently offering ETFO a one per cent increase in compensation while the union is asking for two per cent.
Other issues on the table include special education funding, full-day Kindergarten and hiring practices.
On Tuesday, CTV News Toronto obtained a letter written by the deputy education minister that says the government is “committed to the existing Junior and Senior Kindergarten class size policy, as well as maintaining full-day Kindergarten.”
“I trust that this will contribute to the finalization of collective agreements in the best interests of students,” the letter says.
However, Hammond said that the letter was not presented at the bargaining table and was instead handed to the union’s general secretary “in the lobby of a hotel.”
“Bring that commitment to the actual table, work with us on language that is based on that commitment to put into our collective agreement,” he said.
A spokesperson for Lecce's office said that the government provided the letter "as a gesture of good faith" in order to show that the issue would not be an obstacle in the negotiations.
"It is disappointing that this letter is not being viewed in this light," they said. "Side letters have been used in the past, and have worked in the past, we are at a loss on why this is not sufficient now."
In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, Lecce said that the government is disappointed that teachers are continuing to strike.
“Our government has put forward reasonable proposals at the negotiating table, including a commitment to maintain full-day kindergarten, and it is deeply disappointing parents are still seeing repeated escalation at the expense of our students to advance higher compensation, including more generous benefit plans,” Lecce said.
“We firmly believe students should be in class, and we continue to stand ready to negotiate and reach a deal Ontario students deserve.”
Students to miss two school days a week due to strikes
Hammond said that the union members will continue to walkout twice a week—once in a province-wide strike and another in a rotating strike, which will impact various school boards across Ontario.
He said that a withdrawal of service is the union’s only means to stop cuts to education funding, but would not confirm future job action past next week.
Meanwhile, the leader of the New Democratic Party is calling on the Premier to “hit the reset button” by removing Lecce from his position.
“As Premier, the buck stops with Doug Ford. He is the only one that can end these strikes and get our kids back in the classroom where they belong,” Horwath said in a statement Tuesday.
Horwath added that Leccee has “demonized education workers” and has created a bad relationship that is preventing a deal from being reached.
The Premier’s Office has said they will not be replacing Lecce as education minister.
All of ETFO’s 83,000 members, including public school teachers, occasional teachers and educational professionals, will take part in a province-wide strike on Thursday.
The union has provided their five-day notice for next week's job action:
- February 10: One-day strikes in Avon Maitland, Durham, Durham Catholic (designated early childhood educators only),Halton, Hastings-Prince Edward, Lambton Kent, Rainbow, Thames Valley, Upper Canada and Upper Grand school boards and Campbell Children’s School Authority.
- February 11: One-day strike of all 83,000 ETFO members.
- February 12: One-day strikes in Algoma, Greater Essex, Limestone, Niagara, Renfrew County, Toronto, Toronto Catholic (designated early childhood educators only) and Waterloo school boards, Moosonee and Moose Factory District School Authorities and Bloorview, John McGivney Children’s Centre, KidsAbility and Niagara Peninsula Children’s Centre School Authorities.
- February 13: One-day strikes in Bluewater, Grand Erie, Hamilton-Wentworth, Keewatin-Patricia, Lakehead, Ontario North East, Ottawa-Carleton, Peel, Penetanguishene, Protestant Separate, Simcoe County, Superior-Greenstone, Trillium Lakelands and York Region School Boards, and Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre.
- February 14: One-day strikes in Kawartha Pine Ridge, Near North and Rainy River School Boards.