Public education battle to heat up?

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Push has come to shove in the battle between teacher unions and the provincial government.

As of New Year's Day, Education Minister Laurel Broten has the power to impose contracts if a local deal can't be reached and a top union official expects she will do just that.

Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), said Broten warned him she would not back down in a conversation just before Christmas.

“She certainly indicated that it was more likely she would impose (contracts) than not impose,” said Coran, a former St. Thomas high school teacher who became head of the Thames Valley local.

Teachers held rotating strikes across the province this month to protest Bill 115, which freezes teachers' salaries for two years, reduces some benefits and allows the government to ban strikes.

Broten says she will not extend the Dec. 31 deadline to reach local agreements.

"After Dec. 31, the time to negotiate those agreements concludes and the Putting Students First Act gives the government the ability to put in place collective agreements," she said.

Coran said there are rumors Broten will make an announcement on Monday.

“She's under a lot of pressure from the opposition, from the Conservatives especially, to do something,” he said.

Coran and his counterpart from the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has asked Broten to delay the imposition of contracts until after the Liberal leadership convention on Jan 25-27.

Some of the leadership hopefuls have indicated more sympathy for the teachers' unions position.

“There's a lot of speculation that it will be up to the new leader of the party to handle this situation,” said Coran.

Although unions will not be allowed to stage strikes after Jan. 1, Coran said the OSSTF members recently gave the union leadership a mandate for a one-day “political protest” of Bill 115 and he is calling his local presidents to a meeting in Toronto on Jan. 9 to discuss the next steps.

ETFO president Sam Hammond has also threatened “political protests” if contracts are imposed, but said the union will hold off if Broten waits until after the leadership convention.

Broten sent out a tweet over the weekend claiming progress because 60 local agreements have been reached with school boards across the province.

But most of the agreements appear to with locals of the Ontario English Catholic Teacher Associations, including the London District local.

Coran said only one of OSSTF's 142 bargaining units has reached a deal.

“The constraints placed on the situation were so severe it did not allow for creative thinking.”

Tory education critic Lisa MacLeod says she is concerned the Liberal government will back down in the New Year.

"The Liberals have proven time and again they're incapable of following their own legislation," she said. "My concern is there will be no resolution Dec. 31, we will be in a grey area, they will have bowed to union demands and they will weaken the province's position," said MacLeod.

She said the province was unwilling to stop rolling strikes across Ontario public elementary schools, and they'll take the same position when it comes to imposing contracts on teachers.

I'm not holding my breath and I suspect there will be a contract rollover," she said.

- with files from QMI Agency



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