Teacher talks progressing well, Ontario's education minister says

TORONTO — Ontario's education minister has his eye on negotiations with teachers' unions, a day after the government reached a tentative deal with education workers to avert a strike – though developments are likely far off.

Stephen Lecce said Monday that talks with the four major teachers' unions have progressed throughout the summer and fall, but those negotiations are at much earlier stages than with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"CUPE ... was more aggressive in negotiating over the past months," he said after question period.

"So (talks with teachers) are at different stages, but I would submit that they're in a good place. We continue to work in good faith with the aim of providing a deal that keeps kids in the classroom, that respects our educators."

CUPE, which represents 55,000 education workers, is set to take its tentative deal – including raises of $1 per hour each year of the four-year contract – to members for a ratification vote starting Thursday. If members vote to reject it, the parties could go back to the table and CUPE could give another strike notice.

CUPE, whose members include education assistants, librarians and custodians, made most of its contract proposals and details of the government's counter offers public. But details of bargaining with the teachers are expected to remain scarce as both sides have opted for confidentiality.

Barb Dobrowolski, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, said talks so far have been "respectful," and have started to touch on a few non-monetary items, but it is still very early.

OECTA has only had five days of talks with the government so far, and has two dates next week, but in the last round of bargaining the parties met roughly 100 times before a deal was reached, Dobrowolski said.

"It's quite certain that we'll be bargaining into the new year, and who knows how long that'll take," she said in an interview. "I would imagine it could take months."

Dobrowolski said she is relieved the government "saw the light" in its tense showdown with CUPE and ultimately repealed a law that imposed contracts on the education workers and included the use of the notwithstanding clause to guard against constitutional challenges.

"I hope that the government is now committed to negotiating a deal fairly and sees that there's no need to legislate or impose changes," she said. "Bargaining works."

CUPE ended a two-day walkout earlier this month once the government promised to repeal the law, but served another five-day strike notice days later, after union leadership said it had come to an agreement on wages but wanted staffing level guarantees.

Talks throughout the weekend failed to secure anything new, and the tentative deal is the same offer the government presented to the union last week.

However, Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said it was time to take the deal to the membership for a vote.

News of the tentative deal came a day before CUPE was set to walk off the job for a second time. Schools across Ontario were open Monday and many parents expressed relief.

Outside a north Toronto school Monday morning, Rokan Siker said he was glad to have his daughter learning in person instead of online, which would have been the case had a strike occurred.

"It is not just only learning, it is also physical activities," he said. "If she is staying home, she isn’t doing any physical activities, so it is not good for her.”

- with files from Sharif Hassan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press