08/16/2012 02:49 EDT | Updated 10/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario Teachers Strike Would Be Blocked Under Liberal Wage Freeze Bill

TORONTO - The governing Liberals raised the stakes in their battle with Ontario teachers Thursday by releasing details of threatened legislation that would impose a wage freeze.

The province has given school boards and teachers until the end of the month to sign local deals similar to one it reached with English Catholic teachers, which included three unpaid days off and eliminating the banking of sick days.

Three unions representing about 45,000 workers — including francophone instructors — have accepted the agreement, but three others representing 93,000 teachers as well as support staff are fighting it.

If those deals aren't signed, the draft bill would impose similar terms on all teachers on Sept. 1 until a new two-year contract is signed and approved by the government.

It's a necessary step to prevent the automatic rollover of old contracts that the province — which is facing a $15-billion deficit — can no longer afford, said Education Minister Laurel Broten.

"I don't believe the average Ontario worker would expect to get a 5.5 per cent pay hike in these economic times just because they took the summer off and refused to negotiate a new agreement," she said.

"What I'm saying today is that won't happen. We won't let it happen."

If the bill is passed, teachers and staff who get raises will have to pay them back, she added.

NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson was stunned by Broten's comments.

"I think it's most unfortunate that the minister's trying to pick a fight with teachers," he said.

"Kids look up to their teachers every day, and I think the fact that the minister of education is trying to belittle educators doesn't bode well in the eyes of students."

The draft legislation would give the government the power to ban a strike or lockout for the next two school years and impose new collective agreements after Jan. 1, if they can't be reached before then.

Reviews of any action taken under the proposed legislation by the Ontario Labour Relations Board and courts would also be limited. Government officials said they believe it would withstand a court challenge.

Broten wouldn't say when the minority Liberals would recall the legislature to introduce the draft bill. But she challenged the opposition parties to "step up" and support it.

"Time is running out," she said. "We know that several teachers' unions are planning strike votes for late August and early September."

The Conservatives and New Democrats complained that they hadn't seen the legislation, which the Liberals released to the media before consulting them.

The government also dropped the news on a day that both parties were holding out-of-town caucus retreats, they said.

The Liberals won't even tell them if or when the bill will be introduced, said Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod.

"We don't know at this point if it's just a public relations exercise or just another part of the ongoing fight that the McGuinty Liberals have engaged in with both teachers' unions and school boards," she said.

Union leaders insist that their members are planning to return to the classroom in the fall and that the government is creating a crisis where none exists.

That's exactly what the Liberals want with two potentially game-changing byelections coming up on Sept. 6, said Bisson.

"They're trying to create an issue, they're trying to make it look as if the teachers are prepared to go out on strike and the school boards will be nasty," he said. "Why create this crisis?"

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