M’CHIGEENG – Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) teachers took part in a province-wide one-day strike last Wednesday, December 4, as contract negotiations with the provincial government continue for employees represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).
“It was really good to see, hear and feel the public support out there. There was lots of honking and at every single site there was lots of food donations, more food than the members could have possibly consumed at that time. The public response was tremendous,” said OSSTF District Three president Eric Laberge.
The process for contract negotiations between the OSSTF and the province began when the union served a notice to bargain more than 200 days ago on April 29, 2019. Since then, the two sides have remained fairly far apart in their positions, though the province has eased some of its demands.
The three biggest issues that leave the parties divided are legislation to increase class size caps from the current 22 to 28, as well as a requirement for all students to complete four online e-learning classes in order to graduate. The province has also frozen public sector wage increases at one percent per year for the next three years.
The union is calling for the cancellation of both the class size increase and the e-learning requirement. It is also requesting a two percent wage increase, saying this more closely matches the pace of inflation. The rate of annual inflation in Ontario as of August 2019 was 1.9 percent.
Ontario has reduced its proposed class size increase from 28 to 25, still higher than the original figure but lower than the legislation. It has also halved its e-learning requirement, mandating that students will now only have to take two online classes. Its wage increase freeze, however, has not changed.
As a follow-up to this week’s strike, teachers in several school boards were expected to hold another one-day walkout today, December 11, but Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) teachers were not part of that list.
This past Saturday, December 7, OSSTF president Harvey Bischof issued a statement described as a possible “path forward in negotiations.” The union would agree to the province’s proposal to use the services of a private mediator and postpone its scheduled follow-up strike if certain conditions were met.
The province would have to completely scrap the class size increase, cancel all mandatory e-learning and make an exemption to the one percent wage increase limit for an increase to be determined through the mediator.
Mr. Laberge said the provincial agreement is only the first step in the contract negotiations. OSSTF District Three is the union body that represents secondary school teachers in the RDSB. Once the provincial contract is ratified, the negotiations at a local level can commence. This two-tier model of central and local negotiations has been in place since 2014.
The reason the local group is waiting to negotiate is because items currently at the central level may get pushed down the chain to become local negotiation items. Until the central contract is finalized, it would be difficult to negotiate a local contract because items may get added mid-way through the process.
Local agreements have previously contained the limits on regulations such as class size requirements, according to Mr. Laberge.
“Specific class size language only exists in local agreements, it does not exist centrally. OSSTF has agreed that any bargaining (for class sizes) should happen at the local level because it’s a ‘one size fits all’ model,” he said.
The realities of an urban school with 3,000 students are vastly different from a small population rural school in a place such as Manitoulin Island, meaning legislation about class sizes might unequally affect schools in different parts of the province. Critics have panned mandatory e-learning especially in a place like Manitoulin Island, where internet coverage is highly variable based on where one lives and speeds are uniformly slower than what is available in bigger centres.
Mr. Laberge said it has been frustrating to see the lack of movement at the central bargaining table.
“There’s that anticipation of having to deal with larger class sizes, the anticipation of losing possibly somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12 to 13 percent of our workforce that would lead to the larger class sizes,” he said.
The combination of larger class sizes and a reduction in support staff would be a “recipe for disaster” for at-risk students who thrive in an education setting with small classes and more direct attention, according to Mr. Laberge. He said the education system could not sustain further cuts and still provide high-quality education for a generation of young Ontarians.
“We want to keep it status quo because that’s the education system we have. We don’t want to see it eroded any further,” said Mr. Laberge.
As of press time Monday, a decision had not been finalized whether the two parties would enter mediation.