The Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation Thursday that will keep some teachers in the classroom but won’t prevent escalating job action across the province.
The legislature voted 64 to 18 to pass the Protecting The School Year Act, which outlaws any further strike action by public high school teachers at the Durham, Peel and Rainbow district school boards in this academic year.
A ruling Tuesday from the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) sent the teachers back to work the next day, but would have permitted the strike to resume on June 10.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said there is now some breathing room to negotiate collective agreements with teacher and education workers before school starts up again in September.
“I can do a lot of bargaining in 102 days,” Sandals said.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) condemned the bill but confirmed its members would comply.
“The legislation that was passed (Thursday) accomplishes nothing more than to inflame a situation that’s already rife with animosity and distrust,” OSSTF president Paul Elliott said in a statement. “For months our members have endured indifference and disrespect from their employers at the local bargaining table, and now (Premier Kathleen Wynne) and the education minister have added further insult by removing their right to withdraw their services.”
Other teacher unions have been equally critical of the back-to-work legislation, calling it an attack on teachers’ right to strike.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose caucus voted against the bill, said it will provoke more labour strife.
“I do know that there’s a sense of frustration that continues in the system,” Horwath said. “I know that there are other unions, other educational workers, who are prepared to take action as well … this very legislation that was passed today by the Liberals and the Conservatives together only puts fuel on the fire.”
Progressive Conservative MPP Garfield Dunlop said his caucus backed the bill to ensure that students at the three boards — who’ve already gone several weeks without classes — don’t lose their academic year.
Dunlop urged the Wynne government to redo Bill 122, legislation passed last year that sets out the rules for teacher bargaining.
“If you look at the big picture, we’ve had about nine months of negotiations taking place since last September and what have they accomplished?” Dunlop said. “As far as I know right now, of the 72 boards there are no local deals and there’s no provincial deal.”
Sandals said she expects that there will be a short “cooling off” period with OSSTF but the government will be back bargaining soon.
“It’s usually better to talk to people and negotiate when they’re calm rather than when they’re upset,” she said. “And I think the union executive is probably upset.”
The minister said she was advised by the leaders of the three school boards impacted by strikes that returning teachers were extremely professional and engaged.
“They were very optimistic that with the legislation … that those three boards will be able to calmly and effectively complete the school year now.”