Skip to main content
empty conference room

Demystifying the Bargaining Table

Kimiko Inouye

As an ETFO educator, your collective agreement plays a key role in your day-to-day work life. For permanent education workers, as well as long-term occasional members, your ability to take paid sick leave because you caught the flu or care leave to take a family member to a medical appointment, for example, is established in your ETFO collective agreement. For occasional members, the information you receive from the principal upon arrival for an assignment is likely defined in the collective agreement. For designated early childhood educators (DECEs), whether you receive professional time is determined through bargaining. For education support personnel (ESP) and professional support personnel (PSP), your collective agreements include provisions on the equitable distribution of supervision time.

These and other provisions – including salary increases, grievance procedures, preparation and supervision time, pregnancy leave benefits, staffing procedures and seniority – have been negotiated over many years, and reach beyond any legislated labour or employment standards. Currently, for example, full-time permanent and long-term occasional ETFO members have access to 11 paid sick leave days per school year and a short-term leave and disability plan of 120 days at 90 percent salary. Ontario’s Employment Standards Act allows for a mere three sick leave days per year, which are unpaid. (See “ETFO’s 2019 Round of Collective Bargaining” in the 2019 spring issue of Voice for more details).

Key improvements to class size have also been achieved through negotiations between unions, school boards and the government. In the 2017 extension round of bargaining, for example, ETFO successfully negotiated Kindergarten class size caps and closed the gap on grades 4-8 class size averages in certain boards to ensure that they didn’t go over the 24.5 student limit. ETFO also bargained improvements to class size at the 2004-08 provincial discussion table negotiations. While changes to class size are not always negotiated, ETFO takes your concerns on class size and composition into account when bargaining for improved terms and conditions of employment and better school and learning environments for all students.

The Importance of Collective Bargaining

Public education sector bargaining in Ontario has been fraught with struggles over decision-making power, often within the context of education funding and policy reforms driven by political agendas. Joseph B. Rose provides a thorough overview in his article, “The Evolution of Teacher Bargaining in Ontario,” in the publication Dynamic Negotiations; Teacher Labour Relations in Canadian Elementary and Secondary Education (2012).

A pivotal moment was in the fall of 2012 with the passing of Bill 115, legislation that stripped education unions of their right to bargain collectively by imposing, among other things, wage and retirement gratuity freeze provisions, limitations on the ability to strike and a restructured sick leave plan. ETFO and other education unions launched a Charter challenge, which was upheld by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2016. In the challenge, the case was made that the provincial government had violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it enacted Bill 115. More information on the Court’s decision can be found at

Under the Ford government’s austerity agenda, increases to class size and a bill that proposes to cap increases to public sector compensation at one percent again limit the bargaining power of unions to fully and collectively negotiate terms and conditions of employment.

No matter the challenges put forth by the Ford government, it remains ETFO’s priority to protect the collective bargaining rights of all its members.

Central and Local Bargaining: A Two-Tier System

On June 3, 2019, ETFO filed notice to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) to begin bargaining. Notice to bargain is usually given within a 90-day window prior to the expiry of a collective agreement. However, in early April 2019, the Ford government introduced a new regulation that extended the notice to bargain period a month ahead of the 90-day window. All ETFO collective agreements expired August 31, 2019. ETFO is now in the bargaining period.

The two-tier system we have in place now was established under the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act (SBCBA), the piece of legislation that defines the structure of bargaining for the public education sector in the province.

As an ETFO member, you may be aware that your collective agreement has two sections – a central agreement and a local agreement. The terms under the central agreement are negotiated at a central bargaining table and apply to all ETFO members. The local agreement is bargained between your ETFO local and the school board.

The SBCBA is a relatively new piece of legislation, passed in 2014. ETFO, as well as the other public sector education unions, have only been through one full round of bargaining under this Act and that was for the 2014-17 central and local collective agreements. In the fall of 2016, leading up to the expiry of that agreement, the Liberal government proposed an extension of collective agreements in place of full bargaining. Some provisions were negotiated at the central tier, while local agreements remained unchanged.

Eight Facts About ETFO Collective Bargaining

1. ETFO members participate in setting the bargaining goals. 

In November 2018, ETFO provincial asked members for input on priorities for this round of negotiations via an online survey, telephone survey and focus groups. The results were collected and analyzed by ETFO staff, then presented to the ETFO provincial Collective Bargaining Committee. This committee is made up of ETFO members from all groups – teacher, occasional teacher, DECE, ESP and PSP. Its role is to develop a set of proposed goals, which are provided to the Provincial Executive who then submit them to the Representative Council for review and approval. The Representative Council approved ETFO’s 2019 central bargaining goals last February (available at

Locals may also have their own processes by which they gather input from members to develop local bargaining goals. This might include surveys, general member and committee meetings, focus groups and so on.

2. Central list items are related to, but not the same as, bargaining goals.

Once ETFO’s bargaining goals are approved by Representative Council, a subsequent meeting is held for local presidents and chief negotiators to approve the proposed central list items. The central list items take into account the goals, but are not the same. The goals are the intended destination (e.g., additional special education supports, smaller class sizes, etc.), while the central list includes the items that the parties want to negotiate (e.g., class size), but not the objective.

3. Central list items are negotiated in each round of bargaining.

Once notice is given to bargain by either the union or employer bargaining agent, the parties must meet within 15 days of that notice, unless a later date is agreed upon. Initially, the parties may negotiate ground rules for bargaining, followed by the central list items. OPSBA, or the Council of Trustees’ Association (CTA), and the government will come to the table with their own proposed list of central items. The scope of central bargaining must be determined before moving on to negotiating any changes to the collective agreement.

4. ETFO bargains for its members at two central bargaining tables. 

There are two central tables for ETFO – the Teacher/Occasional Teacher Central Table and the Education Worker Central Table (for DECE, ESP and PSP members). ETFO negotiates with OPSBA for teacher and occasional teacher members and with CTA for DECE, ESP, PSP and other education worker members. CTA is the representative employer agency for all publicly funded school boards (i.e., public, Catholic, French-language) at the ETFO Education Worker Central Table.

5. ETFO is represented by a negotiations team at the central table.

Who is at the central bargaining table? The group of people who sit at the table, across from school board and government representatives, make up the ETFO provincial table team. This team includes members of the Provincial Executive, usually the President and First Vice-President, as well as the General Secretary, Deputy General Secretary responsible for collective bargaining and senior collective bargaining staff. There may also be backrooms set up for staff and members of the Provincial Executive who review and analyze the proposals of the government and school boards in relation to the union’s bargaining goals and prepare responses.

6. The government is a participant at the central bargaining table.

The government’s role in bargaining is different than the bargaining agents that represent educators and school boards. The government cannot, for example, give notice to bargain. It is, however, required to cooperate in good faith in preparing for and conducting central bargaining. ETFO is the bargaining agent for its members, while OPSBA and CTA are the representative agencies that bargain on behalf of their school boards. When there are disputes, each party or the government has the right to seek recourse with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, which settles disputes.

7. Local bargaining may begin once notice to bargain is given.

ETFO locals begin bargaining after meaningful bargaining has occurred at the central tables. Because the central list items must be negotiated first, the parties to local bargaining do not actually meet until the scope of central bargaining is agreed upon and once approval is given by the General Secretary. These procedures are laid out in ETFO’s Negotiation Procedures, which are approved by the Provincial Executive.

8. The Ford government’s compensation legislation limits the collective bargaining process.

Bill 124 proposes to impose a three-year salary and compensation cap that would apply to ETFO members as well as other unionized and non-unionized workers in the public sector. Specifically, the Bill imposes a one percent annual cap on any increases to salary rates, and a one percent annual cap on other compensation. Compensation in this case is broadly defined to include salary as well as other payments provided to or for the benefit of workers. The Bill also gives the President of the Treasury Board, in their “sole discretion,” the power to render void a collective agreement or arbitral award if it is determined inconsistent with the Act. The parties would then be required to return to the bargaining table to settle the terms of their agreement.

You Can Get Involved in the Collective Bargaining Process

Getting involved in the bargaining process can be an exciting way to learn about how your collective agreement comes to be. Beyond providing your input in the goal setting process, you can also get involved as a steward or as a member of your local collective bargaining committee. At the local level, stewards play a significant role in the preparation stages of bargaining as well as during the bargaining process. Stewards might provide input to the local collective bargaining committee on workplace issues in the lead-up to developing the preliminary submission, keep members up-to-date on the status of negotiations or assist in conducting and participating in strike and ratification votes.

Your local collective bargaining committee might also be of interest. Committee members’ tasks might include research, developing member input processes for identifying bargaining goals and developing bargaining proposals.

You might also attend general membership meetings that your local has organized to keep you informed on central and local bargaining. 

Whether your involvement is as a steward, committee member or informed member, know that the opportunity to build on and improve existing collective agreements lies in unions’ ability to collectively bargain. This is a right we should not take for granted.

Given the Ford government’s destructive cuts so far to the education sector and other public services, solidarity amongst and between all ETFO groups, unions, public sector workers, community groups, students and their families is our most robust resource. This is especially critical if concessions are put on the table that ETFO cannot accept and an impasse is reached. In this case, for central work-to-rule strike action, the Provincial Executive could call for a strike vote, a decision that would not be taken lightly. The ability to strike is an essential piece of the right to collective bargaining. A successful strike vote in and of itself can create significant pressure by the union. In this round of bargaining the right to strike will be important as a means to defend your working conditions and support better learning conditions for all students.

Kimiko Inouye is the collective bargaining researcher at ETFO.