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Ontario high school teachers approve deal to avoid strikes

Ontario's public high school teachers have voted to settle unresolved contract bargaining issues through arbitration and avoid any strikes. Education Minister Stephen Lecce, shown in this Wednesday, January 12, 2022 photo,  says it's a significant step forward in providing stability for high school students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Ontario's public high school teachers have agreed not to strike this year, or for the next three years, as they ratified a deal with the government to settle any unresolved contract bargaining issues through an arbitrator.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation reached a tentative deal with the government last month to continue negotiating until Oct. 27, then go to arbitration, giving up their right to strike. Union members voted on the proposal and it has now passed, with 78.4 per cent in favour.

President Karen Littlewood said the union had unsuccessfully tried to engage the Progressive Conservative government in good faith bargaining for 14 months, and she believes this pathway will get teachers the best deal.

"What we have found is the bargaining we've done in September has been substantial," she said in an interview on Thursday.

"We've actually made some progress, so we don't need a lot of dates. What we need is a government that's going to commit to the students of the province and to the education workers of the province, and now that we're seeing some movement I expect that to continue until the 27th of October."

Littlewood said she believes the Greenbelt controversy contributed to the progress, after two independent reports found the process to select land for removal from the protected area favoured certain developers. The scandal cost Premier Doug Ford two cabinet ministers and two top staffers before he ultimately reversed his plan last week.

"We spent really a year doing nothing and wasting time and money at the bargaining table. But the fact that the government really has struggled in the last few months, the fact that they are desperate for a good news story to cover up all the bad news that goes along with the Greenbelt, we thought we would take this opportunity," she said. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce rejected the connection to the Greenbelt.

"There's been a good faith effort for the last many months to get this deal done," he said.

"This is something we've been working on for some time and I'm really grateful that we can come together to put these kids first...They deserve to be in school, and by working together we've achieved that priority of parents, listened to their number one priority, which is stability."

Littlewood said the deal teachers have now agreed to also contains a remedy for lost wages under a wage restraint law known as Bill 124. That 2019 law capped salary increases for teachers and other public sector workers to one per cent a year for three years.

Lecce suggested that the members of other teachers' unions could receive Bill 124 remedies too, if they agree to binding arbitration.  

"Through this proposal, which includes negotiating for the next month and sending any outstanding issues to interest arbitration, this frame includes the resolution for 124," he said.

"What we've offered OSSTF is fundamentally what we're offering to the other unions, and we believe that frame can be achieved right across the board. It just requires them to accept and to move forward and get on with meeting with us to get this type of a deal like this signed."

The three other major teachers' unions have so far rejected the idea of using binding arbitration.

Bill 124 was ruled unconstitutional by an Ontario court, but the government has appealed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2023.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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