Occasional teachers’ deal draws praise

FORT FRANCES—After months of negotiations, the Rainy River District School Board approved a four-year contract with its local occasional secondary teachers Tuesday night.
“I think we can truly say we have a collective—meaning both sides—agreement that’s going to work well for the next little while, and above all, will form the basis for the next round of bargaining,” said Andrew Hallikas, chief negotiator for the Occasional Teachers’ Bargaining Unit of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation District 5B.
“We’re quite pleased about it,” he added. “I think both sides came up with a very, very good compromise that both sides can live with.
“There was some real good creativity and co-operation, and a real desire to get a deal.”
“We are pleased to have completed our final contract negotiations with our employee group, and look forward to working with our occasional teachers to provide secondary students with excellent opportunities to learn,” said Jack McMaster, education director for the local public school board.
The agreement, which covers Sept. 1, 2004-Aug. 31, 2008, includes “modest improvements to benefits and a wage increase that is within the top third salary for occasional secondary teachers [within Ontario],” the board said in a press release.
“The wages for the union local occasional secondary teachers are comparable with the wages paid by other boards in Northwestern Ontario,” it added.
However, the contract will not tie the occasional teachers’ rate of pay to the salary grid for regular teachers, which was one of the main issues for the teachers.
“It’s still an issue with us,” Hallikas contended. “It’s still the trend in the province, even more so. It’s just an idea whose time has come for occasional units.”
The board resisted the move, saying it wanted the ability to negotiate a complete contract with the unit and not have portions of the package signed off to other groups—in this case, the permanent teachers’ bargaining unit.
Local occasional elementary teachers also negotiated their collective agreement with the board earlier this year, but did not insist on having their salaries tied to the grid.
“I think if both groups simultaneously had decided this was the number-one issue for them, and both groups had dug in, certainly that would have created more pressure on the board,” Hallikas said.
This could be an option for the two locals for the next round of bargaining in 2008.
In fact, the occasional elementary initially had asked for the same treatment, but gave it up during negotiations.
Despite the long process, Hallikas said he was pleased with the outcome.
“I do want to give the board some credit. We were in a difficult situation. It was a difficult impasse,” he remarked.
Part of the difficulty came from the fact that neither side had had to deal with a similar situation before.
“It was uncharted territory,” Hallikas conceded. “Neither side knew what we were supposed to do. I give credit to the board for treading cautiously.”
Key to the resolution was that neither side became embittered when contract talks broke down.
“For us to move off of a position we had dug in on and the members were willing to strike for, and were striking for, there had to be some real creativity on both sides,” Hallikas explained.
The result has been improved relations between the two.
“Both sides are feeling trust in the other side,” Hallikas said. “There’s, I think, a chance here for us and the board to learn how to work together because we really haven’t had that much experience in the past.”
Hallikas credited McMaster and assistant to the director, Ian Simpson, with keeping the talks going and striving for a deal despite some difficult meetings.
“Those guys are a class act,” he remarked.
Meanwhile, the new collective agreement contains some significant changes that likely will result in some “growing pains,” Hallikas added.
“The good communications that were developed as we set this up will come in handy now as [the changes] become implemented,” he said.
The round of bargaining had another unexpected but positive effect, Hallikas added. A breakdown in talks earlier this year led to a strike on April 18—a rare instance of occasional teachers striking in Ontario.
“Nobody likes a strike, and really I don’t think anybody completely wins one, either, but the process, as distasteful as it is, still was a good one for the occasional teachers in that we were quite a disperse group before and it’s really brought us together,” Hallikas said.
Many occasional teachers are retired teachers, or new teachers looking for full-time work. As a result, membership in the local can vary significantly from year to year—making it difficult to put an executive together or assemble a bargaining team.
Hallikas said the strike has caused the group to unify, and they recently held their first annual meeting.
“A number of our members have been politicized, in that we have a full executive now and we have a full bargaining team for the next round of bargaining, which is not that far off,” he noted.
(Fort Frances Times)