Ontario's Education Minister says she remains hopeful the school year will be a peaceful one even as she struggles to build political support for legislation that would prevent a strike while leaders of the province's largest unions remain staunchly opposed to her teacher-contract framework.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning at Rose Avenue Junior Public School in downtown Toronto, Laurel Broten urged opposition members to review the legislation that would prevent a strike or expensive teachers' raises from taking effect this fall. Her party has recalled the legislature for Monday, two weeks early, in order to introduce the bill.
Union leaders have accused Ms. Broten of overstating the likelihood of a strike in order to win support for the bill, and for Liberal Party candidates in upcoming by-elections in Vaughan and Kitchener-Waterloo.
"This government has started a crisis," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "My members feel betrayed."
The Liberals hold a minority government and face a tough battle to win the votes to pass the proposed bill into law. The Progressive Conservatives have said it doesn't do enough to control education spending, while New Democrats have warned it will spark a lengthy and costly court battle with the unions.
The government is grappling with a $15-billion deficit and is looking for savings that will help it preserve full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes.
If passed, the bill would force school boards and teachers' unions to embrace a deal that delays experience-based pay bumps for younger teachers, enforces a 1.5-per-cent pay cut in the form of unpaid professional development days, and cuts sick days to 10 from 20.
Ms. Broten said the measures will save the province $473-million this school year. "We're taking these steps because we want to keep money in the classroom, not directed to more raises for teachers."
Although leaders of some teachers' unions have agreed to a wage freeze, they have raised objections to the cuts to sick days, which are bankable for a payout upon retirement. As well, Francophone, Catholic and English school boards have raised objections to non-monetary terms that would limit their powers around teacher hiring and student assessment.
Union leaders have said a strike is unlikely and that school will begin this September as usual, although members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario have voted in favour of a one-day walkout if the legislation is passed.
At least one English Catholic bargaining unit is holding a strike vote this week and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation will hold one starting next week.