Why ‘strike watch’ always goes so late — and why Ontario schools aren’t out of the woods yet

ANALYSIS: The government negotiated a tentative agreement on Sunday night, keeping kids in class. But there are more negotiations to come — and they’ll only get tougher
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 08, 2019
Ontario’s minister of education, Stephen Lecce, speaks during a press conference in Toronto on October 6 to announce that the government had reached tentative deal with CUPE. (Cole Burston/CP)

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In the end, it wasn’t terribly different from education-labour negotiations in years past: the minister of education, Stephen Lecce, announced an 11th-hour deal on a Sunday night, relieving parents and disappointing students. In this case, the agreement was with CUPE and involved support workers and educational assistants. It’s more or less the same script we’ve seen play out regardless of whether the minister in question was wearing Tory blue or Liberal red.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t, in its own way, surprising. Given Premier Doug Ford’s history of anti-union rhetoric and the government’s desire to draw a hard line in negotiations concerning public-sector compensation, it was an open question whether the government would be willing to risk a strike that closed schools. In the end, the government found roughly $20 million to put some laid-off employees back to work and agreed to a 1 per cent increase in salaries.

“This is definitely a positive development,” says Mitchell Davidson, executive director of the StrategyCorp Institute of Public Policy and the Economy. “I’d be hard-pressed to say it was anything but.”

Davidson served as the executive director of policy in Ford’s office until earlier this summer. (He wasn’t directly involved in the governments negotiations with educational-sector unions.)

“What I would say is that it’s also probably the easiest of the negotiations to come,” he says. “Despite it being a good step and a positive sign of good labour relations with the Ford government, it’s also — of the teacher and education stakeholders — it was also the one most likely to reach a deal.”

The bargaining process with education-sector unions often gives rise to the kind of drama we saw on Sunday night. Because the government generally tries to make deals with the unions one at a time, there’s a lot riding on the first agreement, even if it’s not with the biggest or most influential union. Any bargain reached with the first union to make a deal (in this case, CUPE) can set the precedent for the agreements that follow — and is more likely to be a floor than a ceiling, as far as subsequent deals go.

To take a specific example: the government agreed to $20 million in its deal with CUPE to rehire employees who’d been laid off earlier this year. That’s a relatively trivial sum in the world of Ontario’s public finances, but other unions also have workers who were laid off when the province changed teacher-to-pupil ratios earlier this year.

“It will really be dependent on the language, and whether or not it provides real security for those positions,” says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. “I will say this: a deal will rely on us returning to staffing levels that provided for a high level of schooling for our students.”

Bischof and OSSTF can reasonably point to the deal the government just signed with CUPE and demand similar treatment; but, if they do, the government will be looking at a bill much larger than $20 million because OSSTF represents more members, and because the government was more aggressive in shrinking payrolls at high schools than it was elsewhere. The spring budget maintained the teacher/student ratios for kindergarten and elementary schools and increased the number of students for intermediate schools only slightly, but increased the ratio for high schools from 22 to 28.

“We are in a very different position than CUPE … for some reason, the government attacked high-school teachers to a greater degree than other workers within the sector,” Bischof adds. “Just from dollar costs, they’ve got a long way to go to get back to previous staffing levels.”

The CBC reports that the gap between what the government is willing to spend and what the big teachers’ unions are looking for is $1 billion.

For the government — any government — the key question is what kind of agreements it can afford in the context of its fiscal plans. For most of their tenure, the Liberals faced the same basic calculus the Tories do now: how to keep a measure of labour peace while shrinking the deficit. So it’s no accident that the government’s key negotiators report to the Treasury Board Secretariat (headed by Peter Bethlenfalvy) and keep their eyes on the costs of anything that’s agreed to at the bargaining table.

“It’s kind of like giving the bargaining team a window, certain parameters to exercise their judgment, and it’s up to them to get the deal they find acceptable within that limit,” Davidson says.

It’s going to be the government’s fiscal state that determines whether it’ll be able to make some more congenial agreements with the larger teachers’ unions or whether it’ll try to take a hard line going forward. But even this is ambiguous, given how rapidly the government’s stated deficits have changed in the last 18 months. Minister of Finance Rod Phillips will have to present a fall economic statement sometime after the legislature returns on October 28 (presumably, it will actually be delivered in the fall). The FES — the annual “mini-budget” that serves as a public update on the province’s finances — will give us the clearest picture yet of the province’s finances and what the relative costs of labour agreements may be.

One issue that’s undoubtedly on the mind of some unions: before MPPs rose for their long summer-and-fall recess, Bethlenfalvy introduced Bill 124, which gives the government the power to legislate some public-sector agreements to control costs. That bill hasn’t been passed, but it may yet be, and unions might reasonably think they could get a better deal at the bargaining table than through legislated fiat.

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