Bargaining brouhaha

Q&A with Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association
|Canadian Labour Reporter|Last Updated: 04/28/2014

How will the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act affect future negotiations with teachers in the province?

First of all, it offers us a process on a go-forward basis. In the past, typically, the process by which we negotiated collective agreements with our bargaining units changed depending on the personality and priorities of each successive minister of education. So this offers us a consistent process and a baseline for negotiations. Secondly, it certainly recognizes OPSBA as a representative of school boards and has enshrined us as the bargaining agent of record for the school board association. So it means that OPSBA — and hence school boards — are absolutely going to be sitting at the table from here on in. The third piece is that there is not going to be a collective agreement in the education sector of the province of Ontario without all three parties being able to agree.

Will negotiating with three parties create difficulties in the collective bargaining process?

Absolutely it’s going to be difficult. I don’t think anyone thinks this is nirvana, or that this is utopia. While I think bargaining is going to be as difficult, as controversial, as community-splitting as it always has been, I think the one element that has caused a great deal of angst in the past is the lack of a good process. The Act removes that piece, but it does not make things easier. I don’t think including the three parties will make negotiating any more difficult because there’s a defined process, but it also doesn’t mean we can just snap our fingers or wiggle our noses and everything is going to be perfect. The next contract — which we will start negotiating any time now — is going to be put in the framework of some very difficult times.

What is significant about the Act’s two-tier bargaining system?

It’s very important for school boards to understand that there are local issues that must be dealt with on the local level. I do not believe, and certainly my members do not believe, that having a one-size-fits-all provincial agreement is the way to go. Each community has a uniqueness about it, and there’s a need to have the two-tier bargaining system in order to make sure that unique elements of local concern can be dealt with at a local level. We don’t want a monolithic approach to education. That local foundation is important, and a good part of the process is that all three parties have to agree what is a local matter and what is a provincial matter.

What aspects of the Act have been most problematic?

For a number of unions the issue of the "last man standing" has caused concern. You don’t want to be the first one to make an agreement because you may not get the best deal. There’s a feeling that you may not get the best agreement in comparison to someone who gets to negotiate later on. Another major concern was the desire to be able to regulate what extra curriculars look like, and whether that was part of the job or not part of the job.

Do you believe the Act will inspire other provinces or other industries to follow suit?

Absolutely. We are modeling ourselves after the health care industry, with some modifications, so I wouldn’t say this was invented with us. But trustee associations and boards in other provinces are quite envious of the process we’ve put together. This is game changing in Canada as far as the definition of the process and that the rights of both unions and school boards are guaranteed. The process by which the government will now engage both unions and school boards is something we’ve never seen before. Now there’s some political realism to this, it isn’t all idealistic. No government wants to go through the fiasco that Bill 115 brought to the whole sector with the last round of negotiations. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but it is a game changer.