During her live-streamed opening address at ETFO’s 2023 Annual Meeting on August 14, President Karen Brown announced that, after a long and frustrating year of central bargaining, ETFO would be holding all-member, in-person central strike vote meetings across the province in September and October.
ETFO’s bargaining team had done all it could to move dialogue forward in negotiations, said President Brown. But the combination of consistent stalling by the government/ school board team in the spring of 2023, and unfair labour practices on the government’s part in late July 2023, made it clear that ETFO needed to use new tactics if positive movement at its negotiation tables was going to be achieved.
President Brown laid out ETFO’s concerns to Annual Meeting delegates in her opening address:
Throughout this past school year, ETFO has tried to bargain in good faith with this government. We have come to the bargaining table with reasonable proposals around special education, around class size, and around violence in schools. ETFO’s proposals would have ensured our members had agreements that kept up with inflation and could address the recruitment and retention of much-needed education staff.
We have had 30 teacher/occasional teacher and education worker central bargaining meetings this year. And we don’t have meaningful agreements to show for it at either table.
In response to our constructive proposals, the government has refused to engage meaningfully and has recently insisted on tabling proposals that are tantamount to strips – to your salary, your benefits, and your working conditions.
We have reached a tipping point. ETFO’s patience has run out. Our members’ patience has run out. We now need to pressure this government to come to the table and start to bargain seriously with us.
The move to hold central strike votes is not taken lightly. ETFO would have preferred to reach central agreements long before getting to this point. For an entire year, your Federation has made it clear to government/school board teams across the table that we are ready to reach deals that acknowledge student needs, respect educators’ skill and professionalism, and provide appropriate funding and staffing for the services that schools deserve.
Instead, the government/school board teams delayed, dragged their feet, and squandered opportunities to have meaningful discussions and reach agreements that improve learning and working conditions. So how did we get here?
Comparing the Current Round of Bargaining to the Previous Round
Many members have noticed that the current round of bargaining feels different than the previous round in 2019-20. During that round, the government took an aggressive approach:
The Ford Conservatives tried to change the Kindergarten model, increase Junior/ Intermediate class sizes and cut special education funding.
They wanted ETFO to agree to $150 million dollars in collective agreement strips, which would have resulted in cuts to our members’ sick leave and benefits.
They passed wage restraint legislation, called Bill 124, capping salary increases to 1 per cent a year over 3 years. That tied ETFO’s hands at the bargaining table around negotiating salary, which is why ETFO went to court with other unions to make the case that Bill 124 interfered with bargaining and was unconstitutional.
On top of that, the minister of education was constantly inserting himself into the bargaining process by spreading rumours and misinformation.
ETFO quickly saw that meaningful bargaining could not be achieved without member support. In-person strike votes were held across the province in the fall of 2019, with ETFO members voting 98 per cent in favour of taking strike action, if needed. Job action by members in 2019 and 2020 forced the government to withdraw its demands for cuts, and we preserved Kindergarten, Junior/ Intermediate class sizes, special education funding, benefits, and sick leave.
The Current Bargaining Round Started Well for ETFO's Education Worker Members... Then Stalled
This current round of bargaining started in the fall of 2022, and, for a while, we saw a different approach from the government. This approach worked well for one of ETFO’s central bargaining tables – the Education Worker Central Table where ETFO bargains for its 3,500 DECE, ESP and PSP members. ETFO made significant early progress at that table on key issues like education worker benefits, professional development, health and safety, and job security. Unfortunately, bargaining at the Education Worker Central Table has now stalled because the government is insisting that ETFO provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess benefits contributions for strike days taken by members in the 2019-20 school year, over and above what ETFO already paid years ago.
At ETFO’s Teacher/Occasional Teacher Central Table, where ETFO bargains for its 83,000 teacher and occasional teacher members, negotiations were delayed because there was disagreement about whether occasional teacher hiring practices should be bargained at the central table or locally. In September 2022, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) was asked to decide that dispute. It took the board until December 2022 to issue a decision, and teacher/occasional teacher bargaining resumed in January 2023.
Central bargaining for teachers and occasional teachers continued to be painfully slow in the winter and spring of 2023. By May, ETFO became concerned about two things:
The unwillingness of the government/ school board team to engage in meaningful, sustained, back-and-forth discussions about ETFO’s proposals around salary, benefits, special education supports, class size, violence in schools, and how to attract and retain qualified education staff.
Positions that the government/school board team are taking around benefits and sick leave that, if accepted, would result in significant cuts in those areas. The salary offer being made by the government is also significantly below what was offered to CUPE education workers in the fall.
Bargaining Took a Turn for the Worse This Summer
ETFO continued to bargain with the government/ school board team this summer. We wanted to ensure that any strips they put on the table were removed, and that our members’ bargaining goals would be achieved. Unfortunately, what ETFO saw at the negotiations table this summer was more of the same: a lack of engagement in the bargaining process by government and school board representatives.
In addition, one of the issues that is being actively bargained between the government and ETFO is early reading screening. The government was well aware that some of the bargaining positions it was taking violated professional judgement language in ETFO’s Teacher/ Occasional Teacher Central Agreement.
Rather than working with the Federation collaboratively and respecting the statutory freeze* on expired collective agreements that is part of the legal bargaining process in Ontario, on July 28, 2023, the Ford government imposed PPM 168, which requires elementary teachers with students in Year 2 of Kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2 to use a mandatory early screening tool twice per year. As it is currently written, PPM 168 violates the ETFO Teacher/Occasional Teacher Central Agreement and so, on August 8, 2023, ETFO filed an unfair labour practice complaint against the government at the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Why Take Strike Votes Now?
ETFO collective agreements expired as of August 31, 2022. That means ETFO members have been working for over a year without contracts. Bargaining progress has stalled for our education worker members. For our teacher and occasional teacher members, we have yet to see any progress made on our priority issues, including:
meaningful salary increases that take inflation into consideration
significant increases to daily occasional rates in order to encourage staff recruitment and retention
funding to maintain benefits at current levels
increased supports for students who are integrated into general classrooms
funding to support additional staff positions in special education, ELL, Early Years, Indigenous supports, and mental health/well-being initiatives for students
a clear, transparent, and equitable hiring path for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions
class-size reductions and protections from Kindergarten through to Grade 8
an end to unsustainable teaching models like “hybrid” instruction
measures to address violence in schools
Bargaining is a two-way street. In addition to representing your own interests, the parties at a negotiation table need to be open to hearing the other side’s point of view and seek to understand the reasoning behind their motives. What we’ve seen over the last few months from the government/school board – particularly at the teacher/occasional teacher central table – is a profound unwillingness to engaging in dialogue, to have constructive discussions, or to genuinely tackle big issues in education affecting students, educators and the public education system.
The time for patience from ETFO and ETFO members is over. It’s now time to step up pressure on the government by taking central strike votes and delivering strong strike mandates to support bargaining at our central tables.
Your Participation in Central Strike Votes is Crucial
High turnouts at ETFO central strike vote meetings, together with large central strike mandates from both our teacher/occasional teacher members and education worker members, will send a strong signal to the government that ETFO members are serious about our proposals and positions.
An overwhelming “yes” vote is important because our union is strongest when we are united. Raising our voices together through strong central strike votes means that the government can’t ignore the challenges facing our professions, our schools, and our students.
Holding central strike votes is not an automatic trigger for strike action. There are several other steps that must occur (e.g., impasse, conciliation, no board report, etc.) before legal job action can occur.
Likewise, strong central strike mandates do not necessarily mean ETFO will take strike action, but they do indicate that members are ready to do so, if necessary. Often, a strong strike mandate alone is sufficient to get the government/school board teams to take bargaining seriously.
ETFO remains committed to negotiating fair central agreements that meet the needs of our members and support Ontario’s world-class public education system. These are our priorities as we continue to bargain renewed agreements for our teacher, occasional teacher, and education worker members. Strong strike mandates can only help to support those priorities.
*A statutory freeze under the Labour Relations Act means that the terms of an expired collective agreement remain legally in force and must be respected by the parties to that agreement during bargaining until either a new collective agreement is reached or the statutory freeze period ends.
Lisa Mastrobuono is the Deputy General Secretary at ETFO.
Central Strike Vote Meetings Information
The provincial office, in concert with ETFO locals, will be holding member information meetings where central strike votes will take place. These meetings will be conducted in person in September and October. In most locations, ETFO members working for the same school board (teachers, occasional teachers, education workers) will attend the same meeting, hear the same information, have their questions answered, and then participate in the central strike vote that is relevant to their professional designation.
This fall, your ETFO local will provide you with the date, time and location of your central strike vote meeting. All ETFO members are urged to attend.
In addition, central strike vote meeting information, strike vote FAQs, etc., are available on ETFO’s Collective Bargaining website at etfocb.ca.