TORONTO - Students across Ontario face more uncertainty when they head back to class next week, after the province's cash-strapped Liberals outraged unions by forcing two-year contracts on 126,000 public school teachers and education workers.
But Education Minister Laurel Broten said she will soon repeal the same controversial anti-strike law that gave her government the power to impose the collective agreements, which cut benefits and freeze the wages of most teachers.
Union leaders whose members have staged one-day strikes and cut out extracurricular activities in protest of the law wouldn't say what action they'd take in the weeks ahead. But they warned it won't be "business as usual."
Using "unprecedented, autocratic" legislation to dictate contracts, then promising to repeal the anti-democratic law is a "disgraceful misuse of government power," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Labour groups across Canada are disturbed by what's unfolding in Ontario, said Hammond, whose union is the largest teacher's federation in the country.
"They are all worried about what's happening and will be even more so concerned with what's happened today," he said.
"Every working person in this province should be alarmed by the steps taken by this minister of education today."
Broten blamed the escalating labour dispute on the teachers' unions, saying their leaders wouldn't engage in meaningful contract talks. ETFO left the provincial negotiating table after less than an hour and never returned, she said.
The Liberals had no option but to impose the contracts after ETFO and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation of Ontario failed to reach local agreements with school boards by the Dec. 31 deadline, she said.
But the legislation — which has become a "lightning rod" — will be history once all the contracts are in place, Broten said.
"It has achieved what it was put in place to do," she added.
However, Broten said the government will continue to defend the law in court from the unions, who say it's unconstitutional. Hammond vowed not to give up the fight either.
"You cannot legislate goodwill and you cannot impose goodwill upon my members," he said.
"You will not erase the stain of Bill 115 by simply repealing it after it's been used."
Both ETFO and OSSTF say their members have overwhelmingly voted in favour of political protests if the government forced new contracts on them, which may include walkouts. The unions say they plan to meet with their leaders next week to discuss their next steps.
Any strike action will be illegal until the new contracts expire Aug. 31, 2014, Broten said. But she said she hopes extracurricular activities will return to schools.
It's unlikely that high school teachers will resume those voluntary activities next week, said Ken Coran, president of OSSTF. But that may change if the Liberals fulfil their promise to repeal Bill 115 and select a new leader who will work collaboratively with the unions.
"I would think those two components will certainly be part of the extracurricular discussions," he said in an interview.
The Liberals have argued that they can't afford pay hikes for teachers because they need the money to keep classes small and roll out all-day kindergarten, while also battling a $14.4-billion deficit.
They point to deals they reached with Catholic and francophone teachers over the summer as proof that they've negotiated agreements that work for both sides.
The province also brokered a deal just before the Dec. 31 deadline with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 55,000 workers, including educational assistants, early childhood educators, instructors, custodians, librarians and secretaries.
But the labour fight has taken a political toll on the minority Liberals and self-described "education premier" Dalton McGuinty, who plans to leave the top job once a new leader is chosen at the end of January — when the contentious bill is also expected to be gone.
Rattled by the unions' declaration of war after the bill was passed, the Liberals tried to mend fences with the very groups whose financial and organizational support helped get them re-elected over the past nine years. McGuinty even prorogued the legislature Oct. 15 to buy more time for his party to repair the relationship.
Broten denied Thursday that repealing the law is a cynical ploy to win back the support of teachers before the next election. But the opposition parties say they're not so sure.
The minister is admitting the law is flawed while in the same breath saying she'll still use it to force contracts on teachers, said New Democrat Cheri DiNovo.
"This has nothing to do with the well-being of students and has everything to do with the well-being of the Liberal party," she added.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, whose party helped pass the law, said the Liberals have no one but themselves to blame for the chaos in schools.
They say they want to rein in spending, yet they're throwing away the first bill that actually had a wage freeze in it, he said.
"That tells me that they want to put the union bosses back in charge of running the province," Hudak said.
There are no good guys or bad guys in this fight, said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. But the Liberals aren't solving the problems they now face by giving to teachers with one hand, while taking away with the other.
"It's still a worry in terms of what's going to happen come Monday in schools," she said.