Parents should brace for more bitter labour disruptions at Ontario's schools in 2013 after an open letter from the Premier has teachers' unions expecting that the government will impose new contracts.
Wednesday's letter from Dalton McGuinty – which says the "uncertainty" in the education system cannot continue – comes on the eve of Education Minister Laurel Broten's Thursday announcement on the government's next steps.
David Clegg, president of York Region's elementary teachers' union, said he interprets the Premier's "self-serving" missive as hinting that the government will impose contracts.
"It seems to suggest that. It remains to be seen. They've had that ability since Bill 115 passed," he said.
The deadline for unions to reach local agreements with school boards came and went on Monday night, meaning Ms. Broten now has the power to set the terms of the contracts for public school teachers and staff under the controversial Bill 115, which allows the government to freeze wages, reduces teachers' ability to bank sick days and limits their right to strike.
Last month, Sam Hammond, the head of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, threatened that the worst was yet to come, saying such a move would trigger a large-scale political protest by teachers.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman said Mr. Hammond would not speak with the media until after Ms. Broten's announcement.
Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, criticized the timing of the Premier's letter.
"I'm not sure getting a letter of this nature prior to whatever the minister says tomorrow will be well-received," he said.
So far, only 65 of 469 school bargaining units across the province have come to deals that meet the province's strict requirements under Bill 115, the vast majority of them within the English Catholic school board, which settled in July.
In his three-page letter, Mr. McGuinty outlined the Catholic teachers' agreement, and wrote: "Those compromises will now serve as the terms for contracts moving forward."
Later on, Mr. McGuinty said: "Our preference is and has always been negotiated settlements. But after 10 months, the bargaining deadline has passed. Ontarians expect, rightly, that uncertainty in education will not continue indefinitely – and that our government will show a clear determination to balance the budget by 2017-18."
The Progressive Conservatives are urging the government to impose contracts on teachers before students return to school on Monday.
Elementary teachers staged rotating one-day strikes across the province before the Christmas break, and in late December, ETFO urged Ms. Broten to hold off on imposing contracts until a new Liberal leader is chosen to replace Mr. McGuinty.
But it is unclear whether ETFO plans to escalate strike action, which could be deemed illegal. High school teachers across the province have withdrawn from extracurricular activities, which they provide on a volunteer basis. That job action is expected to continue into 2013 – and for the next two years – if the province imposes contracts.
The Ontario Liberals have said that cutting teachers' paid sick days to 10 from 20, and delaying a pay grid that increases their salaries to $90,000 from about $40,000 over 10 years, was necessary to tackle a $14-billion provincial deficit while preserving job-generating programs such as caps on primary-class sizes and full-day kindergarten.
With a report from James Bradshaw