It's McGuinty versus Ontario teachers

Public displays of affection between Dalton McGuinty and the province's two largest teacher unions,...

Public displays of affection between Dalton McGuinty and the province's two largest teacher unions, representing more than 93,000 members, have vanished. (MICHAEL AUBRY/QMI Agency).

Jonathan Jenkins, Queen's Park Bureau, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET

TORONTO - This could be the end of a beautiful friendship.

Through nine long years and three hard-fought general elections, Ontario’s teachers have fought doggedly alongside the Liberal government of Premier Dalton McGuinty, knocking on doors, pounding in signs and writing cheques that helped fund seven-digit ad campaigns.

But public displays of affection between McGuinty and the province’s two largest teacher unions, representing more than 93,000 members, have vanished. Unions say co-operation has been replaced by a deep sense of betrayal.

“Since 2003 we had a great relationship with this government, there is no doubt about that,” Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario president Sam Hammond says.

“We supported them in each of the last three elections and did that openly because this government did make substantial changes and sound investments in public education. We supported those - smaller class sizes, full day kindergarten, etc.

“As of Oct. 7 (2011), we’re dealing with a government, a premier, a minister of education, I don’t understand anymore. Quite frankly. Since Oct. 7, there has been no relationship with this government.”

Not surprisingly, it’s money troubles that are threatening to split apart this durable political marriage since last fall’s election delivered a Liberal minority - McGuinty is dealing with a $15-billion deficit that can’t be reduced without some pain for the more than 1 million workers in the province’s broader public sector, whose salaries make up a big chunk of that shortfall.

To that end, Education Minister Laurel Broten tried to convince teachers to accept both a two-year wage freeze and a freeze on salary grid movement - the automatic wage bumps teachers get as they accumulate years of service.

ETFO and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation balked, and said they would deal with local school boards rather than talk directly to the province, but Broten eventually did get a deal with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association on a wage freeze and partial grid freeze.

The deal also does away with banking sick time until retirement and will see teachers work three unpaid professional development days.

Two other teachers unions have since agreed to the basics of the OECTA deal and McGuinty is threatening to impose through legislation that settlement on ETFO and OSSTF by Aug. 31, to prevent automatic salary increase on Sept. 1.

Doctor salaries have been similarly targeted and that dispute is now headed to court over what the Ontario Medical Association has alleged are unfair negotiating practices on the government’s part.

Teachers, too, say they could end up in court if the McGuinty follows through on his threat to recall the Legislature to pass a bill - outlined Thursday by Broten - forcing the OECTA deal on every union.

Hammond has called the government’s stance “the most concentrated attack on collective agreements and public sector workers” in his members’ lifetimes - which would of course include the strike and demonstration-scarred tenures of former premiers Bob Rae and Mike Harris.

He won’t yet pronounce a break-up with the Liberals as final but says McGuinty must change course or kiss teacher support goodbye.

“The political realities in Ontario have changed and they have changed over the past few months,” Hammond said.

“We shall see how those realities play out in the future. I certainly wouldn’t support this government based on what they’re doing right now.

“There’s absolutely no way I could do that, when they’re interfering with the established collective bargaining process.”

Teachers understand the province’s money woes but don’t believe they’re caused by education spending such as full-day kindergarten or elementary class caps are the cause.

“Our members did not generate the fiscal crisis,” Hammond told members at the ETFO annual general meeting in Toronto last week, blaming government waste, mismanagement and scandals such as eHealth and Ornge for putting the province in a hole.

That point is now being made in a tart TV spot paid for by York Region’s ETFO chapter.

“You made those political promises and we agreed with them. You implemented them and we agreed with them,” Hammond said of FDK and class caps.

“Now don’t come back and expect my members through their collective agreements and their long-term compensation packages to pay for those things. It’s unheard of.”

Ken Coran, president of OSSTF, has taken a more diplomatic approach and says he still sees some hope talks with school boards could succeed, or show enough success to get extended past the Liberals’ Aug. 31 deadline.

“We have accepted a wage freeze. The area where we’ve had problems is the grid increases,” Coran says.

“It’s not fair to those people to have that taken away from them.

“The government has been successful and student achievement has improved significantly. It’s our members and all educational workers that are delivering the service.

“That’s why we want respect in this collective bargaining process and we’re not being unreasonable.”

Legislation “would be something that would not be welcomed, by any means,” Coran says.

“We’ve never been an organization that has told its individual members how to vote. I think each individual member will view this whole process...differently.

“I think there will be a lot of soul-searching that will go on.”

If Queen’s Park is recalled and a bill passed, his union will challenge it in court, Coran said late last week.

It’s an awkward split to manage for McGuinty - who’s spending $6 billion more on schooling than his predecessors did and brought in the $1.5 billion FDK program to cement his reputation as the Education Premier.

He sunnily dismissed Hammond’s attacks as “elevated rhetoric” and has tried to appeal directly to teachers themselves, reminding them of the money he’s invested in their sector and the bad old days of strikes and strife under the last Progressive Conservative government.

“The economy is a bit more challenging, but we’re still on the same side,” McGuinty said.

“I think we’re all committed to doing what it takes to ensure our kids get the best possible education. We’re all committed to doing what it takes to making sure all of our families can count on great quality, publicly-funded education here in Ontario.”

 


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