TORONTO (CP) — Enshrining a system that's been used to negotiate new contracts with Ontario's teachers won't prevent parents and students from experiencing the kind of labour strife that disrupted their last school year, opposition critics said last week.
The governing Liberals introduced legislation that, if passed, would entrench the current system in law before most of the existing agreements expire in August.
It would ensure provincial trustees associations are represented at the main bargaining table, along with the government and unions, including those representing support staff, said Education Minister Liz Sandals.
It would also require that all three parties ratify any central agreement, which is unique in Canada, she said.
"What we will find is that we've got a much better legal framework to avoid strikes,'' Sandals said.
But it won't stop the Liberals from passing another anti-strike bill that led to major protests by public school teachers last year, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"There's nothing that guarantees that this government, or another government, won't go down the same road as the Liberals wrongly did with Bill 115,'' she said.
The teachers' unions declared war on the minority Liberals in 2012 when, after talks fell apart, the government forced new contracts that froze some teachers' wages and prevented them from striking.
The controversial bill sparked rotating one-day strikes by elementary teachers — which the Liberals said they wouldn't oppose — and the withdrawal of extracurricular activities by high school teachers.
Taking a hard line also alienated a powerful group that's helped the Liberals get re-elected over the last decade.
The next round of bargaining will be difficult, said Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.
"But it will be interesting having two sides on the other side of the table with their own agendas and what they hope to achieve at the table,'' he said.
The legislation is no magic bullet, but it will allow for better labour relations, said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.
Last time, "the process was being invented as we went along,'' he said.
School boards complained that they were left out and had no say in the tentative agreement that the province reached with Catholic and francophone teachers' unions, then pressured the rest of the unions to adopt.
Now they won't be left to "wait in the dark,'' Barrett said.
"It doesn't mean that some of the issues are going to go away — class sizes, supervision, prep time — that stuff's not going to go away,'' he said.
"But at least it provides a framework to have open, honest discussion and a common agreement in order to be able to make sure that the discussion takes place.''
When Premier Kathleen Wynne took office in February, she sought to mend fences with teachers, promising to change the system to avoid such confrontations as her cash-strapped government fights a $11.7-billion deficit.
The Progressive Conservative, who supported Bill 115, said the Liberals are worried that they'll lose the teachers' unions to the New Democrats, and they're willing to abandon any effort at fiscal restraint to win them back.
"This government seems to have abandoned all hope of trying to address those concerns,'' he said. "And we see that today in trying to entrench a collective bargaining process.''
Over the last few years, new contracts with teachers have been reached through a so-called provincial roundtable, where representatives for the government, school boards and unions hammer out a framework agreement.
That template was then used in local negotiations to fine-tune a final agreement, as the school boards are technically the teachers' employers.
But the only legal negotiations under the current law are those between the local boards and the unions, according to government officials.
Several unions have joined forces to take the government to court over Bill 115, which was repealed last January, arguing that it violated their constitutional rights.
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