Following Thursday’s announcement that the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) had reached a two year agreement with the provincial government, the presidents of other unions held a joint press conference on Friday morning criticizing the deal.

“We continued discussions, even when other unions left the table, because we believed that negotiating was the best way to secure a fair and reasonable agreement for our members – and we believe we have achieved that goal,” said Kevin O’Dwyer, OECTA president, in a written statement on Thursday.  

“This agreement mitigates the impact of the government’s original parameters, protects younger teachers from having to make larger sacrifices and achieves significant gains for our members on key non-monetary issues.” 

Highlights of the agreement, from the OECTA press release, include:

– a two-year wage freeze for all educators in the Catholic system, including principals;

– three unpaid days in 2013-14 in the Catholic system for teachers, principals and vice-principals, ensuring that everyone, not just young teachers, share in the impact of the fiscal constraints;

– partial payment of salary grid increments over the two years;

– grand-parenting of retirement gratuity programs on a go-forward basis;

– a revised short-term leave and disability plan that protects members who may need more than 10 days off for serious illness, chronic health problems, pregnancy or surgery; 

– language for a fair hiring practice; and

– greater recognition of teacher professionalism and their ability to direct classroom assessments that complement and inform student learning. 

OECTA represents 43,000 elementary and secondary teachers in 29 Catholic school boards across Ontario.

Local collective agreements between employers (school boards) and employees (local OECTA units) still need to be negotiated and signed.

All OECTA collective agreements expire August 31, 2012.

“With 20 years experience in collective bargaining, this has been one of the most difficult negotiations I have encountered, with the most at stake for our students and our members,” said O’Dwyer in the OECTA press release. 

“This agreement ensures Ontario’s Catholic education system will continue to provide an exceptional learning environment for our students while achieving desired outcomes for our members and addressing the government’s fiscal concerns.” 

But Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario president Fred Hahn, has grave concerns about how this agreement will affect students in classrooms across the province.

CUPE represents 55,000 school board support workers in every elementary and high school as well as Catholic and French language schools in Ontario.

“Any attempt to force this agreement on other workers in this sector would be a mistake that the government should not make,” said Hahn during Friday’s press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto.

His members have proposed alternative ways to achieve savings and efficiencies without gutting collective agreements.

“(But) the government is not prepared to listen to creative ideas. They’re only interested in their own parameters.”

School boards across Ontario have already announced hundreds of layoffs, with more planned in the future.

“The Liberals cannot say that they are protecting our education system when they are removing millions of dollars from it,” he said.

“Without the teachers, secretaries, custodians, instructors, education assistants, the food service workers and the bus drivers there is no education system.”

Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) president Ken Coran said Friday he’s “upset and disheartened” by the way this recent round of negotiations has unfolded.

For the last five months, the OSSTF has complained about the process, filing labour board charges with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour and the Premier over the lack of transparency and rules.

“This basically is a free for all in negotiations (and) we don’t like it,” said Coran. “So we’re not supportive of the deal (reached with OECTA) and it is not good enough for OSSTF members.”

Since February, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has demonstrated that it would not tolerate the dismantling of their collective agreements or throwing away the improvements they’d won for their members over the last several decades.

“And we will not do that today,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond on Friday. “And we will not do that tomorrow.”

Yet the McGuinty government insists that the OECTA agreement will put students and families first while protecting gains in education.

“The government’s news release, as is usually the case, only tells half the story,” said Hammond. “It does not explain how children will be better served by a demoralized workforce.”

Nor does the release clearly state how much more the government will ask unions to surrender in future negotiations.

“That means more cuts at the expense of children and younger teachers for decades to come,” he said.

The government said in its release that “Ontario is meeting its fiscal goal by saving the province $250 million in 2012-13, growing to $540 million in the second year, when the agreement is applied across the entire sector.”

Yet the government believes it can be done and still protect full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, and dedicated teaching and support staff.

“Who really believes that you can take that kind of money out of the education system without jeopardizing the future of Ontario’s children?” asked Hammond.

“I have no doubt that OECTA members will discover that this deal does not mitigate the impact of the government’s original parameters. This deal is not a blueprint and it is certainly not a roadmap for anyone to follow.”

John Bonnar

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