A guide to the new talks between ETFO and the Ford Government

ETFO president Sam Hammond (left) said he is “optimistic” that the Ford government’s negotiators will engage in “meaningful bargaining.”(The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/Cole Burston)

Contract talks between the Ford government and the union representing public elementary teachers resumed today for the first time since educators launched rotating daily strikes.

The Ministry of Labour appointed mediator, Denise Small, called both sides back to the bargaining table at the Sheraton hotel for a single day of discussions, which the union is characterizing as “exploratory talks.”

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario has put a time limit on the talks, suggesting that if a deal cannot be reached by Jan. 31 students province-wide will be impacted by two strikes next week – one day of rotating school board strikes, and a one-day province-wide walkout. 

While the return to bargaining can look promising, there are warnings that the fresh round of talks can be derailed if either side isn’t willing to compromise. 

Charles Pascal, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario and currently a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says mediators will often begin with the easiest issues in an attempt to test the waters. 

“Effective mediation starts with low-hanging fruit – can they agree on something small to get the ball rolling,” Pascal told CTV News Toronto. 

From there, Pascal said the mediator will move onto the more thornier issues – compensation, restoration of funding and full-day kindergarten – and suggests the government could hold the key to breaking the impasse. 

“If the government moves from playing cat and mouse with full-day kindergarten … and basically said ‘we’re all in’ and we are going to honour the current model – that would unlock everything for ETFO,” Pascal said. 

“It would also give the (education) minister credibility that he could get a deal with ETFO.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has always maintained that his government has been reasonable during the discussions and suggested in a statement, Tuesday, that he wants the union to accept a contract that would increase compensation by one per cent per year versus a cost-of-living increase. 

“Our hope is the union will come to the table with realistic proposals that prioritize student success over compensation demands,” Lecce said in a statement. 

ETFO’s president Sam Hammond issued demands of his own and said he is “optimistic” that the government’s negotiators will engage in “meaningful bargaining.”

“The Ford government’s negotiators must include a mandate to remove further cuts, increase supports for students with special needs, preserve the current Kindergarten model with a teacher and designated early childhood educator, and maintain fair and transparent hiring practices,” Hammond said in a news release Tuesday. 

With so many demands on the table – many of which have already been discussed at length – Pascal warns there could be “no low-hanging fruit” for the mediator to work on. 

“(There) may be no progress whatsoever – and if there’s no progress whatsoever then ETFO has to decide whether to escalate.”

Other unions keeping a close watch on the talks

The union representing Ontario’s English Catholic teachers will be watching the ETFO bargaining with “cautious optimism” and says any progress could be positive news for the entire sector. 

“If they’re able to move this forward it will be better for everybody,” Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) told CTV News Toronto Tuesday. 

“Let’s hope it bears fruit.”

OECTA, which represents Catholic school teachers from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12, is planning another one-day province-wide strike on Feb. 4 unless a deal can be reached. 

Stuart says while the mediator has yet to call OECTA back to the bargaining table, she “keeps in touch with both sides” to gauge whether there’s been any movement. 

“She will periodically check in to say ‘ok is there any point to bring anyone back to the table’,” Stuart said. 

“I know she’s trying hard, because I’ve been in the room with her.”

Currently, neither OECTA nor the union representing public high school teachers have any bargaining dates scheduled with the government. 

What happens if talks break off

Premier Doug Ford recently hinted that he is growing weary of the ongoing job action, but stopped short of outlining what his government is prepared to do about the situation.

“There is only so long my patience can last with the head of the (teachers’) union,” Ford said last Friday. 

Pascal says if the latest round of bargaining breaks off without a resolution the government may begin to examine next steps. 

“If there was a full blown strike then the major tool the government has is back-to-work legislation,” Pascal said. 

While the government hasn’t indicated whether it’s prepared to use back-to-work legislation, it may have no other option if the school year is in jeopardy. 

A decision on the viability of the school year is made by the Education Relations Commission of Ontario which examined whether “the successful completion of courses” by affected students is at risk. 

That advice, given to the minister of education confidentially, will help the government determine whether back-to-work legislation is necessary. 

However, the Ford government has yet to call on the commission to evaluate the current school year.