Elementary teacher talks continuing at local level

Peggy Revell

Contract negotiations for elementary teachers once again have returned to the local level following agreement on a provincial negotiating framework earlier this month.
This new four-year framework came out of the blue, said Sharon Preston, president of the local Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, given the original “Provincial Discussion Table” negotiations (PDT) between the ETFO and the Ontario Public School Boards Association fell through in December, leaving individual boards and union locals to negotiate two-year contracts.
Under this newly-established framework, boards and locals have set funding as well as certain parameters on specific issues, such as annual salary raises.
“But all of the things that were not addressed at the provincial discussion tables now have to be negotiated locally,” Preston explained, noting there’s a deadline to reach an agreement by the end of March.
While the framework means the threat of a province-wide strike by elementary teachers no longer exists, Preston stressed the pressure is still on local boards to come to an agreement.
“I think it’s exciting for us, it’s probably exciting for any board in Ontario, to know that there’s been an agreement provincially,” said Jack McMaster, director of education for the Rainy River District Public School Board.
“It kind of lays out a few of the things aside that may have been clouding our discussions before, and now it’s an opportunity to focus on the areas that we can really focus on and get an agreement.
“I think it was probably a surprise to most people,” McMaster admitted, referring to the agreement on the provincial framework. “But knowing our education minister, she’s very committed to ensuring that there is peace and stability in the province.
“I’m really looking forward to sitting down with them [teachers] and coming up with an agreement,” he remarked. “I know I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m optimistic and I’m equally as optimistic now.”
“To say the public boards are pleased is an understatement,” Loralea Carruthers, vice-president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, noted in a release following the deal on the provincial framework.
“The minister’s proposal was fair and respectful of the crucial and challenging jobs of teachers,” she added. “ETFO has seized a vital opportunity.”
For her part, Preston doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m angry, personally,” she said of the new framework agreement. “But I think, given what we went through and so on and so forth, I don’t think we could have done anything but accept it.”
One of the big issues at the forefront of discussions, both locally and provincially, has been changes to contracts that would have increased the amount of time teachers were required to supervise students, as well as giving principals a say in how teachers should spend preparation time—concessions the ETFO had labelled as “strips.”
These now have been removed as a part of the provincial
framework.
Under the framework, elementary teachers will see a two percent raise for 2008 (retroactive) and 2009, followed by three percent raises in 2010 and 2011.
By comparison, other unions (such as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation) that reached an agreement under the provincial framework back in December receive an annual three percent raise over that same time period.
ETFO had proposed a similar salary agreement back in December to the one they just accepted, on condition the money saved would be reinvested into hiring 1,500 teachers—a way to decrease a funding gap the ETFO estimates sees elementary students each receiving roughly $700 less in funding than their secondary school counterparts.
Yet despite accepting the smaller pay raise than their OSSTF counterparts, Preston noted, the province’s proposal only would see 850 teachers added for Grades 6, 7, and 8, reducing class sizes by only a little bit.
“And even in that, they haven’t put any mechanisms in place to monitor it,” she warned. “So it really doesn’t mean anything because there really isn’t anything in there to say ‘you must,’ to track it to see if boards are doing it or not, how they’re using that money, and if they’re using it really to reduce class sizes in the [Grades] 6, 7, and 8s.
“They did not take a good look at the proposal put forward by the elementary teachers and say, ‘Hey, this is beneficial to the economy, this is beneficial to the students, the whole way around.’
“They totally ignored that part of it, and as a consequence, as I’m concerned anyways, the province has deliberately rejected more jobs at a time when the Ontario economy can certainly use more jobs.
“To me . . . they’ve created an inequity between the elementary teachers and the secondary. So the gap has widened even more.”
“It’s almost like it was punitive,” she added, saying it seems like it’s payback for not accepting the original “strips” and bargaining framework.
Preston also sees this as a gender equity issue, noting that across the province, roughly 81 percent of elementary teachers are women.
“What they’ve done is they’ve created a gender inequity,“ she charged. “They did not try to do this to other federations that have a higher male percentage in their federation, but they did do it to a federation that has a higher component than female workers in it.
“Of all of the things, I think that’s what I’m angriest about. Because what I look at it is as being is a gender issue.”
Despite the disagreements with OPSBA and the provincial government, however, Preston remains optimistic about local negotiations.
“Even though I’m upset with the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, and the minister provincially, we have generally had a good working relationship with the board administration here,” she stressed.
“So I’m hoping that that continues, and we can continue to work together for the good of the schools, students, and everybody involved.”