Monday, 4 March 2013

Trust cannot be Restored Overnight

If the Ontario Liberals had hoped that a change in figurehead would completely ameliorate the tensions and apprehensiveness they created with the teachers’ unions, those hopes have now been dashed. While the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) chose to resume overseeing extracurricular activities on the basis of renewed discussions with Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, and among assurances that the government will protect collective bargaining rights and return to fair negotiations, the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has adopted a different approach. The ETFO has advised its members to continue to boycott extra-curricular activities.

Is the ETFO being unreasonable in failing to follow the lead set by the high school teachers? Hardly. The ETFO is merely allowing history to be its guide. After Bill 115, this Liberal government has a very poor track record when it comes to respecting the rights of Ontario’s teachers. The ETFO is simply refusing to make any concessions until it sees concrete promises from Kathleen Wynne to respect their rights.

Education Minister Liz Sandals is said to be disappointed with the decision of the ETFO to continue their refusal to participate in extracurricular activities. If this disappointment was not so absurd it would be almost touchingly innocent. To expect a union which has only recently had its constitutional rights trampled by this government to now wholeheartedly accept that the government intends to negotiate in good faith represents a view of the situation that is completely divorced from reality. Kathleen Wynne has said she will not reopen the contracts that were imposed on teachers through the now repealed Putting Students First Act, 2012, but she will consider cost-neutral trade-offs such as professional development days that are currently unpaid. Discussion of these trade-offs is presently ongoing[1].

Various school Boards have balked at the decision of the ETFO and are seriously considering taking legal action against the union. Trillium Lakelands and the Upper Canada district school boards have already instigated legal action, bringing their case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) seeking a finding that the actions of the ETFO constitute an “illegal strike.” A decision from the OLRB is expected in the near future. Depending on the content of that decision, the other boards may not pursue legal action.

It is entirely reasonable for the ETFO to look to the pattern of disrespect they have received from this government and opt not to engage in extra-curricular activities. The ETFO has chosen to wait for concrete promises from this government. It’s a prudent course of action. If the government is not pleased with the decision of the elementary teachers of this province, they have only their own policies and actions to blame. As David Clegg, president of the local ETFO chapter of the York Region said: “Hollow platitudes are no substitute for real action.”[2]  It should not be necessary for the teachers to redress the damage that has been done to the public school system in this past year. The government created this problem. The only way for them to fix it is through meaningful action, respectful negotiations and firm recognition of the teachers’ constitutional rights. If the government follows this line, everyone involved, and indeed the entire province, will be better off.

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