Four unions representing teachers and support workers said Friday they won't accept the same deal the province reached with English Catholic teachers, which included a two-year wage freeze and unpaid days off.
The union presidents — who represent elementary, secondary and francophone teachers — insist their members want to return to work in the fall, but warned that some will be taking strike votes starting in late August.
And if a deal isn't struck before September, the self-styled "Education Premier" Dalton McGuinty may no longer be able to boast about an unblemished record of maintaining labour peace in the province's schools.
"So we've planned, we've prepared," said Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which represents about 60,000 teachers and other support workers.
"We anticipated this might happen. It's unfortunate, it shouldn't have happened, but we are prepared. Our forefathers fought for our rights and we intend to defend those rights."
The unions say they'll come back to the table, but only if the government shows some willingness to make changes to what they say are unreasonable demands.
The deal with the Catholic teachers is more of a roadblock than a "road map" for bargaining that the education minister has made it out to be, said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
ETFO, which has 76,000 members, walked away from the provincial table in late February because it wasn't going to sit down with "a gun at our heads" and negotiate away significant parts of teachers' compensation and benefits, he said.
"I won't do it today," Hammond said. "I wouldn't do it then and I'm not going to do it tomorrow."
He warned the new deal will be bad for students because it removes millions of dollars from the education system.
Rather than gutting collective agreements, the government could get rid of literacy and numeracy initiatives instead, Hammond said.
"So there are other ways to get to where we need to get to in terms of sustaining this amazing education system that we have and respecting everyone involved," he said.
Teachers are paid through school board budgets that are funded by the province. But the Liberals, who are fighting a $15-billion deficit, have made it clear that they're not going to fund any wage hikes for workers in the broader public sector. So if teachers get a raise, the school boards will have to find the money in their existing budgets.
Coran said his union is willing to freeze wages for two years, but won't allow the province to strip benefits that it says it can no longer afford.
The unions also accused the minority Liberals of politicizing the process by bargaining through the media. Coran suggested the government may pay the price in the upcoming byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo, which the Liberals hope will tip the scales and hand them a majority.
"From time to time, mistakes are made," said Coran. "And what we are saying here is we think there is a mistake that's been made. It's not too late to correct that mistake. Let's have some dialogue."
The Liberals say jobs will be saved if the teachers agree to their demands, such as freezing the salary grid so no one gets a raise due to seniority or improved credentials.
Ontario teachers start at $41,766 to $44,292, and can make up to $92,813 in elementary schools and $94,942 in secondary schools, depending on years of service and education.
But the government won't say whether they'll force a deal on teachers through legislation because it would poison any potential talks with the unions.
Education Minister Laurel Broten said she was "disappointed" by their reaction to the deal, which will keep class sizes down, roll out full-day kindergarten and improve conditions for younger teachers.
"I am hopeful our partners will do the right thing and return to discussions," she said in a statement.
The Progressive Conservatives, who want the government to legislate a wage freeze for all public sector workers immediately, said the unions need a reality check.
Other workers have made sacrifices, now it's their turn, said Tory education critic Lisa MacLeod.
"I have people in my riding ... who having a rough time paying the bills and staying in their home and making sure they can put food on the table," she said.
"When you're a public sector employee, there is a recognition that your job has a little bit more security than the private sector. And that's why I think there needs to be a little bit of give and take."
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which represents 43,000 teachers, was the first group to break ranks with other unions by accepting a deal with the province.
But the agreement still has to clear some hurdles.
Local collective agreements between Catholic school boards and employees need to be negotiated and signed.
And the group representing the school board trustees says it opposes the deal because it was signed behind their back.
They left the negotiating table late Wednesday night, only to find out that a deal with OECTA was reached early Thursday, it said.
The Tories say the deal isn't a victory for the Liberals, as it contains a "me too" clause. If another union negotiates a better agreement, OECTA would get the same deal.