Ontario uses controversial Bill 115 to force contract on teachers’ unions

A stubborn Ontario government officially reached the end of its patience with stubborn teachers’ unions and implemented legislation that forces a two-year salary freeze and revoked the right to strike on Thursday.

Education Minister Laurel Broten announced at a morning press conference that she would use the controversial Bill 115 to impose new deals with elementary and high school teachers.

Ontario teachers’ unions had until December 31 to agree to a contract with local school boards. With the legislation now imposed, those unions that did not reach an agreement will have a deal forced upon them.

Ontario teachers on disputeKen Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, talks about the possibility contracts will be imposed

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That deal includes a two-year wage freeze and the loss of some benefits, including reducing sick days from 20 to 10 per year and limiting the number of days that can be saved until retirement.

The deal will be retroactive to Sept. 1, 2012 and will expire on Aug. 31, 2014.

The fact that Ontario was set to impose Bill 115 — known as the Putting Students First Act — was the worst-kept secret at Queen's Park. But it was Broten's announcement that they would repeal the controversial bill in short order that caught much of the attention.

“Given that the Putting Students First Act was only ever intended as a one-time measure by this government, it is important as a sign of good faith and our commitment to future negotiations that the act be repealed,” Broten said.

Some saw the move as a bid to regain the support of teachers' unions before the next provincial election. NDP education critic Cheri Di Novo told reporters that the move was "Liberal backroom cynical politics at its worst."

The fact of the matter is that Ontario faces a $14 billion deficit and has been looking at all corners of the government to find savings. The new contracts will save the government between $250- and $540-million per year, with $1.1 billion in immediate savings by eliminating banked sick days.

Ontario teacher salaries have gone up 24 per cent since 2008, and the Ministry of Education reports that teachers have received wage increases in each of the past eight years.

Cuts were coming; it was just a matter of how they were done.

[ Related: Rolling Ontario teachers’ strikes test McGuinty’s mettle ]

Those unions that continue to hold out point to Bill 115’s ability to block job action as their main source of contention. Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, called Bill 115 a hammer that did not need to be wielded.

He said imposing a deadline and the specifics of contracts salted the earth for possible negotiations.

“You cannot legislate good will, and you cannot impose good will on my members,” Hammond told a news conference.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) held a series of one-day strikes across the province in December and has threatened further job action to protest the forced contracts.

ETFO, which represents 76,000 teachers, had urged the Liberals to hold off on a decision until a new party leader is chosen later this month.

It is a tough pill to swallow, but most teachers' unions have already come to an agreement with local school boards. Unions representing more than 90,000 teachers and support staff already have deals in place with the government, leaving ETFO and some 50,000 Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation members to face the imposed deals.

With Bill 115 now imposed, teachers are no longer in a legal strike position. Union leaders said they would reconvene with their teams and consider their next step.  The government has urged them not to launch any protests against the legislation, but a reaction is inevitable.

The question is exactly what it will be, and how the government will handle it.