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Canada Teachers’ union claims talks with Ontario government over new contract have hit a snag

Premier Doug Ford’s government recently introduced a regulation that would allow it to start bargaining with education unions as early as April 29, a month ahead of the traditional schedule and in the hopes of minimizing labour disruptions in the fall.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s high-school teachers’ union is warning that its initial discussions with the government to reach a new contract have hit a snag.

In a memo to members on Friday, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said the government and the school boards’ association want more control of issues at the central table and it would prefer those issues be bargained between local unions and individual school districts.

“We are frankly troubled that both OPSBA [the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association] and the government are exhibiting such little faith in the ability of school boards and local bargaining units to find local solutions to issues that have clear local impacts," the memo stated.

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Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, said in an interview on Friday that issues such as the approval of bereavement leaves and the administration of sick leave should be negotiated locally, but management has put it on the table for central bargaining. The issue of class sizes is also on the government’s list to be negotiated centrally, he said, even though local boards have determined maximums and averages in the past.

“They’re leaving virtually nothing for local bargaining,” Mr. Bischof said. “We think it’s unproductive. Even more critically, if I were a local trustee, I would be very concerned that the government … is making the case for the elimination of local school boards. They’re leaving no meaningful role for those local governance structures, and [they are] centralizing everything.”

Kayla Iafelice, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Lisa Thompson, said the government is disappointed that the OSSTF has “already shown their unwillingness to negotiate” not long after the process started.

She added, however, that “as the main source of funding for the education system, the government does not believe matters of financial significance should be bargained at the local level where we do not have a voice.”

Cathy Abraham, president of OPSBA, said bargaining should take place at the table, and not publicly discussed.

The previous Liberal government put a two-step system in place to negotiate contracts. Larger matters such as salaries are negotiated between the government and central unions, while smaller issues are settled between individual school boards and union locals.

Contracts for all education unions expire at the end of August.

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Premier Doug Ford’s government recently introduced a regulation that would allow it to start bargaining with education unions as early as April 29, a month ahead of the traditional schedule and in the hopes of minimizing labour disruptions in the fall. The OSSTF and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association are the only two unions who filed notice to begin bargaining.

Mr. Bischof said the union has proposed an arbitrator be brought in to determine what issues should be negotiated centrally. Failing that, he said the union would apply to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for a judgement.

Discussion to renew contracts come as thousands of teachers across the province fear their jobs are on the line, while courses in high schools are being scaled back or cancelled after the government announced plans to increase average class sizes.

The government said the average class size will move up by one student in Grades 4 to 8, and to 28 from 22 in high school – eliminating an estimated 3,475 teaching positions across the province over the next four years as it tries to trim a deficit it pegs at $11.7-billion.

Ms. Thompson has stressed there would be no layoffs. Instead, she said, teaching positions would be lost through attrition, meaning that when a teacher retires or voluntarily leaves, his or her position would not be filled.

She said the government would also provide school boards with $1.6-billion in transitional funding that should be used to prevent layoffs stemming from class-size increases in high school.

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Several boards have warned that there could still be layoffs because the government has cut other grants.

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