TORONTO — Attempts by Ontario’s minority Liberal government to impose a wage freeze on teachers this summer could trigger a general election if it can’t convince the opposition parties to let the bill pass.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has threatened to recall the legislature for an emergency session to impose a new contract on teachers if they can’t reach agreements with local school boards by Sept. 1.
“We’ve worked long and hard and been sincere and earnest in our efforts to work with our teaching partners, but at some point in time you’ve got to act,” McGuinty said after touring a school in Windsor.
“And respect for the collective bargaining process cannot be used as an excuse to do nothing,” he said.
The cash-strapped government has been trying to negotiate a two-year wage freeze with more than one million public sector workers to eliminate a $15-billion deficit by 2017-18.
Liberal sources said it was “premature” to talk about declaring any legislation to deal with teachers a confidence motion, which would automatically spark an election if it was defeated.
McGuinty admitted he’ll need the support of at least one opposition party if it comes to legislation, but said he was concerned with the “noises” he’s been hearing from the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.
“As far as the PCs are concerned, they are worried that we’re not hitting teachers hard enough,” he said.
“We’re looking for fairness; they’re looking for a fight.”
McGuinty wasn’t expecting any help from the NDP either.
“The NDP are running faster than (Jamaican gold medallist) Usain Bolt away from any government measure that would address public sector compensation,” he said. “They’re afraid of that.”
The New Democrats warned any legislation that imposes a contract on teachers would be challenged in the courts.
“We know that simply imposing a deal with legislation will lead to a long court battle that will leave people paying more,” said NDP critic Jonah Schein.
The Conservatives want a legislated wage freeze for all public sector workers in Ontario, but said they couldn’t agree to support a bill they haven’t seen.
“We have not been approached in any way, shape, or form with any suggestions that the legislature will be coming back or any proposed legislation that we may be looking at should that happen,” said Tory critic John Yakabuski.
The contracts for all teachers expire Aug. 31, but if there are no new deals in place the old ones automatically roll over, which would give teachers a 5.5 per cent pay raise McGuinty said the government can’t afford.
The government spent five months trying to negotiate contracts with the large teachers unions, before telling school boards they had just four weeks to negotiate local deals based on the one agreement the province did reach with English Catholic teachers.
That deal allows up to 40 per cent of younger teachers to move up the pay grid, but requires teachers to take three unpaid days off in the second year, a move the government said offsets the cost of the raises for the younger teachers.
Even though two teachers’ unions now accepted a provincial offer, school boards must still negotiate local deals with teachers and so far only one — the Toronto Catholic board — has agreed to a contract.
Bryan Evans, associate professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, doesn’t expect legislation to impose a teachers’ contract or an election this summer. He predicts teachers will agree to new contracts when they see the risk that legislation could actually lead to another general election.
“Education has been a priority for the McGuinty government. Teachers appreciate that, and not just in terms of their own salaries and benefits, but in terms of improved classroom conditions and educational outcomes,” said Evans.
“I’m not sure when they begin looking at the larger context if they want to gamble everything on a possible change in government, and a government that they all recognize will not be anywhere near so friendly.”