Ontario teachers, support staff, parents and other unionists came to Queen’s Park on Tuesday with one message for the Premier and his Education Minister: Negotiate. Don’t legislate.

Thousands came to express their anger with the government’s proposed “anti-collective bargaining” bill, a piece of legislation teachers and educational support workers called “unprecedented in its attack on bargaining rights.”

The provincial government intends to introduce legislation this week that, if passed, would result in:

– Zero per cent salary increases in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

– All teachers will take a 1.5 per cent pay cut in the form of three unpaid professional development days so that younger teachers will continue to move through the grid according to their experience and additional qualifications.

– Agreement to restructure the grid with a view to long-term, sustainable savings.

– Elimination of the current retirement gratuity for payment of unused sick days that was responsible for a $1.7 billion liability for school boards.  

– A restructured short-term sick leave plan that would include up to 10 sick days. This sick leave plan would benefit younger teachers by providing income protection for serious illness and improved maternity leave provisions.

In a statement released on Monday, the government said that Bill 115, The Putting Students First Act, will save the province $2 billion.

“The proposed legislation, if passed, would take effect on Sept. 1, but provide until December 31, 2012 for school boards, teachers and support staff to engage in collective bargaining,” said the government in its release. 

“This would allow the government’s education partners to reach agreements that respect local circumstances while also including the parameters set out in the legislation.”

Current teacher and support staff agreements expire on August 31, 2012.

“If these are not replaced by September 1, the terms of existing contracts will automatically roll over,” added the government in its release. 

“If this were to happen, the cost for teachers moving up the grid and for continuing the existing retirement gratuity and sick leave provisions would be $473 million. 

The proposed legislation includes a provision that would claw back any increases to wages and benefits that occurred between Sept. 1 and the signing of new final collective agreements.”

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Sam Hammond paid special recognition to those who boarded buses at 4 am in order to attend the noon hour rally at Queen’s Park that numbered in the thousands. 

“Mr. McGuinty, we will never, ever, ever forget this betrayal,” said Hammond.

Moments later, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns stepped on to the stage with several of his fellow New Democrat colleagues.

“We have a Premier and a Minister of Education who are far more interested in winning seats in the legislature than they are in your students in the classrooms or in you and your families,” said Tabuns.

“He had a chance to work with teachers and education workers to come to an agreement (but) he ignored that.”

Although teachers and education workers weren’t necessarily looking for wage and salary increases, they’ve always insisted on a fairly negotiated agreement. 

Teachers and education workers also made it clear that the opening of the school year would not be interrupted by a strike.

“But they didn’t expect to have a crisis thrust upon them,” he said. “Or an anti-democratic bill.”

CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn accused the Premier of deceiving the public by making this a teachers’ only issue because he wants a fight with them.

“We will not be bullied, Mr. Premier,” said Hahn. 

“They are attempting to take away the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of workers and we cannot allow that to happen.”

Hahn recalled an earlier Premier that made the mistake of fighting with school board workers.

“His name was Mike Harris,” said Hahn, who along with many others became active in their unions because of Harris’s mistreatment of workers.

“What Dalton McGuinty fails to realize is he is creating a brand new group of activists.”

He also promised that the Liberal’s betrayal of workers would not be forgotten in the upcoming by-elections in Kitchener-Waterloo and Vaughan, where they would work hard to get their NDP candidates elected. 

“Somehow Mr. McGuinty is taking a page from that guy in Ottawa called Stephen Harper,” said NDP MP Olivia Chow.

Harper’s government has intervened in several labour disputes involving federal public service workers.

“One day we will have a government that will respect the rights of workers, the rights of teachers and respect the right to negotiate a collective agreement.”

CUPE member Tracy Newman works as an educational assistant with the Halton Catholic District School Board. 

She works hard every day to ensure that each student is treated with dignity and respect, even though she doesn’t feel like she’s getting any right now from the Liberals.

“Dalton McGuinty’s proposed legislation tramples my constitutional rights,” said Newman.

“With this legislation, this government is treating me and thousands of educational workers with little dignity and no respect.”

Newman said there is no crisis since many of her support work colleagues have already returned to school. 

Custodians worked over the summer months, preparing the school for next week’s opening. Secretaries are already at school dealing with parents’ queries. Librarians are making sure the necessary resources are in place. And early childhood educators are setting up their classrooms.

Many schools even opened a week earlier this year.

“We’re fulfilling what we promised we would do,” said Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) president Ken Coran. 

“Besides that, we’ve got thousands of office clerical people in the boards working to make sure the students are all registered properly. We’ve got support staff plant personnel to make sure those schools are safe and clean when the students return.”

Coran said the only thing out of the ordinary this year is Bill 115 and having to gather at Queen’s Park on a beautiful, sunny August afternoon.

“It’s not our fault, it’s their fault,” said Coran.

“And we’re going to make them pay for their bad decisions.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.