TORONTO - Public elementary teachers offered Friday to end the rotating strikes they staged across Ontario this month to protest Bill 115 if the Liberal government would agree not to impose new contracts on them until a new premier is selected next month.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation "will cease all rotating strikes and take no new strike action if Ontario’s education minister does not impose collective agreements on or after Dec. 31 under Bill 115," announced union president Sam Hammond.
"We’re extending this offer until a new premier is put in place by the Liberal party in late January."
Education Minister Laurel Broten has not said if she would move to impose deals on Jan. 1, just that she has the option to do it under Bill 115, which freezes the pay of most teachers, reduces their ability to bank sick days and limits their right to strike.
Broten issued a statement that ignored Hammond's offer and urged teachers to use the final 10 days of the year to keep trying to reach agreements with local school boards before the Dec. 31 cut-off date.
"ETFO and other teacher unions had six months to bargain locally, before the Putting Students First Act was introduced," Broten said.
"I encourage all of our partners, including ETFO, to get back to that work at the local level."
Hammond wouldn't say what the union would do if Broten starts imposing new collective agreements Jan. 1, but warned it would mean more headaches for parents and students.
"If minister Broten decides to take precipitous action with Bill 115, that decision will trigger further disruption," he said.
"This will aggravate the situation for parents, students and our 76,000 members."
The Progressive Conservatives, who helped the minority government pass Bill 115, said it was time to use it to stop any more strikes and impose contracts.
"Clearly if you wanted this law to be passed you should use its powers," said PC Leader Tim Hudak, who accused Liberal leadership candidates of undermining the government's position in the fight with teachers.
"That’s been tremendously unhelpful, and has undermined the strength of that bill," he said.
The New Democrats like the teachers' offer and want the Liberals to hold off on imposing any contracts until a new premier is chosen Jan. 26-27.
"This is the first time that we’ve had someone say let’s set things aside for a while and talk when we have a new premier who’s actually going to have a different read on what’s going on in the province," said NDP education critic Peter Tabuns.
"There have been a number of the Liberal leadership candidates who’ve been saying that we need a different approach."
Eric Hoskins, the self-described dark horse candidate in the Liberal leadership race, called on his government to accept Hammond's offer and not impose contracts on teachers.
"The government should not impose the provisions of Bill 115, and in return our teachers and education workers must refrain from further job actions," Hoskins said in a release.
"I am confident that as premier, if negotiations have not concluded, I will be able to reach an agreement with teachers through collective bargaining based on respect and our fiscal realities."
The teachers are hoping for a different approach from the next Liberal leader.
"We believe that the appointment of a new premier will provide an opportunity to take a fresh look at the current collective bargaining impasse and finding respectful solutions for both parties," said Hammond.
Friday was the first day without any school boards in Ontario being hit by a walkout by public elementary teachers since their union began a series of one-day rotating strikes earlier this month.
"I hope that, based on the offer that we put on the table today, that we don’t have to continue what we’re seeing and what we’ve seen over the last several months into the new year," said Hammond.
Hammond also disagreed with Premier Dalton McGuinty's assertion that the dispute is all about pay, and said the union is willing to accept a wage freeze to help the government trim a $14.4-billion deficit.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which workers in both the public and Catholic school boards, said its members are also planning political protests if new contracts are imposed after the Dec. 31 cutoff in Bill 115 for bargaining.