By Kirk Winter

Colin Matthew, President of OSSTF District 15 that represents all the public secondary school teachers in the City of Kawartha Lakes, sat down with me on June 7. He wanted to share where he thinks talks are going with the province regarding a new collective agreement for September 2019, and things are not looking good.

Matthew said the primary issue that is standing in the way of productive talks, “is the proclivity of the province to make announcements without policy to back them up.”

From their election more than a year ago, the Conservative agenda has been driven by a series of dictates delivered by the Premier or members of his cabinet speaking for the Premier with little substance or content behind them. These press conference “talking points” then have to be fleshed out and made workable by provincial bureaucrats, and that is slow to roll out.

Matthew cited two examples of statements of intent that were done without input beyond a very small group surrounding the Premier. That group includes Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, Health Minister Christine Elliot and a few Stephen Harper era apparatchiks who have found employment in Ford’s inner circle. The examples Matthew cited were the promise of a 4 percent across-the-board cut to the operating budgets and a recent potential announcement of a 1 percent raise for provincial civil servants over each of the next three years.

Matthew says, “The education system in Ontario functions on good will between the teachers, the boards and the province. That good will is threatened by unilateral decisions being taken by Premier Ford.”

Since the election of the Conservatives last June, OSSTF leaders have had a total of one hour's worth of face time with the Education Minister, Lisa Thompson. Lines of communication have broken down and talks between the province and OSSTF have failed on the most basic issues of what will be negotiated provincially and what will be negotiated at the board level. The province apparently wants virtually all issues negotiated at the provincial table, with boards left a few tidbits to pretend they had a say.

One former Conservative shared with me that he believes, “The ultimate goal of the Tories is to disband school boards sooner than later. Ernst & Young, who did a forensic audit for the Conservatives in 2018, recommended that money given to both school boards and hospital LINS was lost money for the province, and ultimately Queen’s Park will be taking back that money and all authority to spend it.”

OSSTF has previously sued one provincial government “for imposing a deal and bargaining in bad faith” and won a Charter challenge on the right for organized labour to have collective bargaining rights. One former Liberal told me that “the Ford model with decreed rather than negotiated pay increases will likely force the Federation to consider legal action again.”

Matthew says there are also many other questions regarding negotiations and their impact on his teachers that remain unanswered. These include:

  • 23.5 teaching positions have been lost for 2019 with the board staffing 24 to 1. Matthew believes that in 2020 the board will be staffing 26 to 1 and in 2021 the board will be staffing 28 to 1. OSSTF expects another 40 teachers to lose their positions, but that number is fluid.

  • 23.667 teachers work at the board’s very successful Virtual Learning Centre. The Province has said that all high school students will take four full credits online starting next year. Most feel the online credits will be privatized to organizations/corporations like TVO or Pearson Publishing who will not have to respect any of the current arrangements in place for VLC teachers. In Trillium-Lakelands, those VLC teachers have only been guaranteed their positions for the 2019-2020 school year.

  • Conservative MPPs, with scripts in hand from the Premier, have suddenly started to blame all the teacher layoffs on boards guilty of supposed fiscal mismanagement. Toronto and Peel, who have strongly pushed back against the Conservatives, are being targeted for the worst of the unwarranted criticism.

  • What will happen to negotiations now that the Province has contemplated legislated salary increases for the next three years? Will the Premier invoke the Not-withstanding Clause if the teachers win a Charter case regarding the sanctity of collective bargaining, a right guaranteed under the Freedom of Assembly clause in the Charter?

  • How serious is the Province about negotiating with any of its unions when they have recessed until October 28, one of the longest summer breaks in Queen’s Park history?

  • How are classrooms going to look locally next fall with CUPE reporting that 38 educational assistants and 12 secretaries and custodians have been eliminated for the school year 2019-2020?

Matthew said next year and what it looks like, “will be determined by what the government does over the next few months.” His primary goal is “to protect members and public education.”

Matthew closed by stating categorically that teachers unions, “have the best interests of kids in mind and OSSTF will be fighting hard to keep and improve the public education system that we currently enjoy.”

Even if the summer rains continue, it promises to be a long, hot summer for Premier Ford as he is faced with virtually every civil servant collective agreement coming open the end of August 2019. Locally, MPP and Minister of Labour Laurie Scott could find herself after Labour Day as the single most important Tory in the province with her department’s power to legislate the end to strikes being sorely tested.

A turbulent fall waits for teachers, parents, students and the provincial government and only time will tell how bad things really do get in Ontario high schools.