08/23/2012 11:18 EDT | Updated 10/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Teachers' unions not ruling out labour disruptions later in school year

TORONTO - Three powerful unions fighting government efforts to impose new contracts on Ontario teachers say school will start uninterrupted in September, but aren't ruling out labour disruptions later in the year.

It will be up to their 191,000 members to decide whether there will be strikes or work-to-rule campaigns, the unions said Thursday. Strike votes will be held starting in mid-September.

But there's no plan for any job action in schools right now, said Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which has about 60,000 members.

"I will guarantee that there will be no work-to-rule campaign or any strike action this fall," he said.

However, some "disheartened" teachers may decide not to participate in extracurricular activities, such as after-school clubs and sports teams, he added.

There was never any threat of strikes at the start of the school year, despite what the government is telling parents, the unions said. The minority Liberals are simply creating a crisis to win two Sept. 6 byelections that give them a shot at a majority government.

"The school year does not need saving," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which represents 76,000 education workers.

The only organized protest planned so far is a rally Tuesday at the Ontario legislature over proposed legislation that would force new contracts on their members, he said.

The minority Liberals plan to introduce the bill early next week, saying they need to rein in wages and cut benefits to help eliminate a $15-billion deficit.

They've already reached a framework agreement with three other unions, including English Catholic and francophone teachers, and want the rest to abide by the same terms.

The bill would force those terms on the remaining teachers and workers, including three unpaid days off and cutting sick days in half to 10 a year.

OSSTF and ETFO say they're willing to freeze wages, but are balking at cuts to benefits, including an end to the banking of sick days which can be cashed out at retirement.

The legislation would also ban lockouts and strikes, which the unions are calling an unprecedented attack on constitutional rights in the province.

If the bill passes, the unions vow they'll fight it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"The proposed bill is beyond disturbing," said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, which represents 55,000 workers such as custodians, secretaries and library technicians.

It won't just trample on the constitutional rights of teachers, but all other workers in both the public and private sectors, Coran said.

"I don't care if this court case takes 10 years, we're going to fight for what's right for our citizens," he said.

"We're not just fighting for a contract right now, we're fighting for all workers across this province and — quite conceivably — across Canada."

Broten wouldn't say whether the cash-strapped government could afford to fight another court case. The Ontario Medical Association, which represents the province's doctors, have launched a constitutional challenge to reverse fee cuts.

While she touted the legislation as a means to ensure labour peace in schools, Broten said she's concerned that there may be job action down the road.

"Our children and our families in Ontario deserve to know that school will start, that it will be uninterrupted," she said.

The Liberals insist the legislation is also needed to ensure that teachers' old contracts don't automatically roll over on Sept. 1, giving them pay raises which the government says it can't afford.

That's just an excuse, as any new contract would be retroactive to that date, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"There's no crisis, there's no strike, there's zeroes willing to be taken," she said.

"It seems to me what we need to do is get down to working on coming to a solution for this. It's unfortunate that the process has been so flawed from Day 1, but the responsibility for that lays with the premier."

The Progressive Conservatives have signalled their willingness to work with the Liberals to pass the legislation, saying they're willing to take "half a loaf" and will press for more.

Backbencher Rob Leone said the Tories want to make sure the bill has "teeth," but couldn't say what changes they want.

The Brant-Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board has signed on to the agreement reached with Catholic teachers, joining two others in Toronto and York Region.

But that's just three out of 72 school boards across the province, the unions said.