Secondary School Teachers' Union's Proposal to Prevent Strike

At a special meeting on August 25, Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) Bargaining Unit Presidents and Chief Negotiators of local districts across Ontario voted in favour of recommending a process for negotiations with the Ontario government which would eliminate the right of the union to strike centrally or locally in this round of negotiations. All outstanding local and central matters that cannot be resolved at the bargaining table by October 27 would be referred to what is called binding interest arbitration. OSSTF members will vote on the proposed process in September to say whether they accept this direction. In a press release the union has made it clear that "the proposal is not a tentative agreement but establishes a clear pathway forward for this round of bargaining."

The union says that the proposal also "guarantees that OSSTF/FEESO Members will receive a remedy for wages lost under Bill 124, the Ford government's wage suppression legislation" that unfairly targeted those working in the women-dominated public sector. "Members will receive the remedy without having to wait for the courts to decide on the constitutionality of Bill 124," the union said. This refers to the fact that the Ford government has appealed the ruling of a lower court which found that Bill 124 did violate the rights of teachers and education workers and public sector workers in general, all of whom are implicated in this decision.

If OSSTF members vote in favour of the process proposed, central bargaining will continue until October 27, and any matters that have not yet been settled by that date will go to binding interest arbitration. This form of arbitration is outlined in the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act (SBCBA) under which central and local bargaining takes place in Ontario. This legislation was also imposed without negotiation by the Ontario Liberal government in 2014. This followed its violation of teachers' and education workers' right to strike in 2012 with Bill 115 in an attempt to remove over a billion dollars in banked sick days from educators. The SBCBA stipulates:

"When resolving matters in dispute with respect to central bargaining, an arbitrator or board of arbitration appointed under section 40 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 shall take into consideration all factors that the arbitrator or board, as the case may be, considers relevant, including the following criteria:

1. The school boards' ability to pay in light of their fiscal situation.

2. The extent to which services may have to be reduced, in light of the decision or award, if current funding and taxation levels are not increased.

3. The economic situation in Ontario.

4. A comparison, as between the employees and other comparable employees in the public and private sectors, of the terms and conditions of employment and the nature of work performed.

5. The school boards' ability to attract and retain qualified employees.

Various rumours circulating say that the union and the government have agreed on an arbitrator, William Caplan. Caplan was appointed by the Ontario Labour Relations Board as mediator with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario education workers during their last round of central negotiations with the government. Despite this mediation, the Ford government passed Bill 28. This legislation would have imposed a contract and invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, making it illegal for the workers to take job action in response or even for the Labour Board or courts to review or question the government's action. This was blocked by the mass protests of CUPE and Ontario Public Service Employees' Union education workers and the threat of the same by unions across Canada.

If members vote against the process, bargaining would continue with no arbitrary end date set. It would also mean the union would retain the right to strike in defence of its interests and those of public education, with the government also retaining the right to lock workers out. Nothing would prevent the government and the union also agreeing to binding interest arbitration at a later date before, during or after any strike or lockout. The fact that OSSTF is presenting the proposal to the membership to decide what to do indicates that it is up to the members to deliberate and decide on what will favour them and public education as a whole.

OSSTF President Karen Littlewood stated: "Today represents a critical point in this round of bargaining. Since beginning bargaining 13 months ago, OSSTF/FEESO has been fighting to improve the learning and working conditions in Ontario's schools but the Ford government and school boards have refused to be a fair partner in these negotiations. This process is not a tentative agreement but it does promise to break any impasse by bringing in a third party arbitrator to seek a fair and just resolution."

"As a democratic organization," she said, "it's critical that we allow Members to have the final say through a vote on whether OSSTF/FEESO should enter into this proposal. Bargaining will continue centrally and locally throughout the voting process."

Littlewood added that stability in education would come from teachers and education workers not asserting their rights through strike action. She stated that if the process is approved, "It will also mean that we, as dedicated education professionals, will be able to continue to deliver stability for students in Ontario while seeking the best possible deal for the OSSTF/FEESO membership."

Who Said What

Government of Ontario

Despite the clarity of the OSSTF president's message, following the announcement by the union the Ford government's Minister of Education Stephen Lecce issued a press release titled "Ontario reaches tentative agreement with Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation to provide stability in public high schools."

Lecce stated, "I am very pleased to announce that we have reached a tentative four-year agreement with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) on a process that, if ratified by the union's members, will keep students in class where they belong. If this agreement is ratified, a student who entered grade nine in an English public high school last September will have their entire high school experience free from the threat of teacher strikes. That's something all of us can celebrate."

Using the agreement with OSSTF as a wedge against other education unions Lecce stated: "To ensure stability across the entire education system, we are inviting all outstanding teacher unions to meet with the government as early as Monday to also enter into a tentative deal ahead of the start of school. Let's get these deals done and let kids get back to learning in peace and with confidence."

Education Unions

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), and Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) issued the following statement on August 25 in response to the announcement that OSSTF may be entering into binding arbitration with the Government of Ontario:

"Today's announcement from Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and OSSTF/FEESO, that the parties may be entering into binding arbitration, is not something that AEFO, ETFO, and OECTA can consider at our respective bargaining tables at this time.

"Entering into binding arbitration at this juncture would not support the students we serve in elementary and secondary schools – as binding arbitration would all but guarantee that the key issues we have brought forward at our respective bargaining tables, which are critical to learning and working conditions in our schools, would not be addressed.

"Furthermore, the decision to enter into binding arbitration now impacts the opportunity for meaningful local bargaining on key local issues.

"The Ford Conservative government has continually refused to engage in substantive discussions with our unions, despite our many attempts to make progress at our respective bargaining tables. We once again call on the government to respect our right to free and fair collective bargaining, and come to our bargaining tables prepared to engage in meaningful discussions about critical issues facing publicly funded education in Ontario – issues such as increased violence in schools, resources and supports for student mental health, teachers' use of professional judgement, and addressing the teacher shortage.

"The frontline teachers and education workers represented by AEFO, ETFO, and OECTA will continue to work toward achieving fair, negotiated agreements that defend and protect publicly funded education, and support all students, educators, and families in this province."

On August 29, ETFO filed for conciliation, which means a conciliation officer appointed by the Labour Relations Board would attempt to move negotiations forward with the government. The union stated in a press release, "At this point in time, ETFO does not think [binding interest arbitration] is viable, given some of the issues the Federation would like addressed during bargaining, including: violence in schools, the crisis in the recruitment and retention of educators, the hybrid learning model, the early reading screener, and special education supports for our most vulnerable elementary students."

It added that "While ETFO was initially able to make some significant progress at its Education Worker Central Table, bargaining at this table has been stalled for months. ETFO's experience at the Teacher/Occasional Central Table has been less constructive. No progress has been achieved at this table on any key issue including salary, supports for special education, violence in schools, hybrid learning, benefits, or addressing the crisis of retention and recruitment in the education system. In addition, the Ontario Public School Boards' Association/government bargaining team has refused to remove strips they tabled on issues such as sick leave entitlements, benefits, and professional judgement.

"The Ford government is currently demanding significant cuts to sick leave, benefits, and professional judgement. Binding arbitration would mean that the arbitrator is 100 per cent in control over what happens to those items."

The Federation is holding central strike vote meetings throughout the province from mid-September to mid-October.

Academics

In an article in The Conversation, Larry Savage, Professor of Labour Studies at Brock University, and Stephanie Ross, Associate Professor of Labour Studies at McMaster University wrote:

"Interest arbitration is a mechanism for resolving outstanding bargaining issues. It's most commonly used in instances where essential workers like firefighters or nurses are legally denied the right to strike. Less often, unions and employers use interest arbitration to achieve a first contract or resolve a contentious strike.

"Once the parties negotiate to impasse, a neutral third party – the arbitrator – is called in to settle the outstanding issues. The result is binding on both parties.

"In the case of OSSTF's recent agreement with the province, it had not bargained to impasse, let alone conducted a strike vote to test members' resolve and try to change the employer's position."

The authors added:

"Interest arbitration is seductive for unions given recent decisions that have awarded major wage increases to Ontario nurses and other health care workers to compensate for the effects of Bill 124, which capped public sector wage increases at one per cent per year and has been deemed unconstitutional.

"For workers whose wages have fallen behind over many years, the prospect of catching up without having to build for a potential strike is tantalizing."

"However, there are at least four reasons why prematurely agreeing to binding interest arbitration is highly problematic for unions.

"First, it normalizes the idea that the right to strike is unnecessary. That kind of thinking demobilizes unions and renders members passive. Because the arbitrator's decision is binding, members don't get to vote on the final settlement and therefore become mere bystanders. In short, interest arbitration ignores the key to unions' power – an organized and mobilized membership.

"Second, reliance on interest arbitration can actually increase bargaining impasses by reducing the incentive to negotiate terms that both parties can live with. If a third party is going to decide what the contract says, why budge from one's initial bargaining position?

"Researchers call this the 'narcotic effect' because both unions and management become dependent on interest arbitration to decide contract terms. The problem is that imposed settlements rarely resolve the underlying conflicts.

"Interest arbitration is an inherently conservative process. There is no guarantee that wage increases in one sector will be reproduced in others. Furthermore, arbitration is a poor mechanism for addressing deeper issues like the lack of investment in public services, which underpins the real problems so many public sector workers face."

The article concludes:

"In recent years, unions have won hard-fought battles against governments' attempts to strip away workers' rights to bargain and strike.

"After all this effort, voluntarily giving away these rights and turning over all the power to an arbitrator seems unthinkable. Anti-union governments don't have to worry about restricting the right to strike if unions are simply willing to give up that right in exchange for the crutch of interest arbitration."


This article was published in
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Volume 53 Number 8 - August 2023

Article Link:
https://cpcml.ca/Tmlm2023/Articles/M530087.HTM


    

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