01/02/2013 12:03 EST | Updated 03/04/2013 05:12 EST

Ontario Teachers Labour Dispute: Will McGuinty Force New Contracts?

TORONTO - Premier Dalton McGuinty won't say whether he'll force new contracts on Ontario's public school teachers, but is promising that his government will have more to say Thursday about "the path forward" for new collective agreements that will rein in wages.

In an open letter to public elementary and high school teachers, the outgoing premier suggested that after nearly a year of negotiations, the cash-strapped Liberals have waited long enough for teachers to reach a deal with the province.

"Our preference is and has always been negotiated settlements," McGuinty said Wednesday in the letter.

"But after 10 months, the bargaining deadline has passed. Ontarians expect, rightly, that uncertainty in education will not continue indefinitely — and that our government will show a clear determination to balance the budget by 2017-18."

Education Minister Laurel Broten is expected to speak about the labour dispute Thursday, two days after the cut-off date for the unions to reach local agreements with school boards.

The province managed to reach a deal before the 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 Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, who represent tens of thousands of teachers, have yet to sign any new agreements.

Broten hasn't said whether she'll impose new contracts, only that she has the option to do so under a controversial new anti-strike law.

"Over the coming days and weeks, teachers and support staff, as well as all those in the education sector, will be hearing a great deal about the government's next steps and what those steps mean for them," she said in a message to teachers Wednesday.

Elementary public school teachers staged rotating one-day strikes across the province last month in protest of the law, which also allows the government to cut their benefits and freeze wages of most teachers. Their high school counterparts have cut out extra-curricular activities and some administrative duties, but have not walked out of class.

ETFO has offered not to stage any more strikes if the Liberals agree not to impose new contracts on them until a new premier is chosen at the end of the month. But the union has warned of further disruption if the government doesn't hold off.

OSSTF president Ken Coran said his members have already voted to stage one-day political protests if the government imposes a new contract on them. He's planning to meet with local presidents on Jan. 9 to discuss what their next steps will be.

The protest could include taking days of action — which may or may not include walkouts, he said. But they can hold the protest any day of the week.

Even though teachers would no longer be in a legal strike position if the government foists new contracts on them, high school teachers could still continue to cut out extracurricular activities, which are voluntary.

Asked if teachers might stage a wildcat strike, Coran replied: "We're not ruling anything out right now. There are certainly no plans at this time to do that."

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak called on the Liberals to bite the bullet and force new contracts on teachers before students head back to class next week.

The Liberals asked for his party's support to pass the new law, promising it would prevent disruption in Ontario schools, he said. And now they refuse to use it.

"I still can't believe that kids will be going back to school next week and not even know if there will be more strikes," Hudak said.

"I mean, who's running the education system? Is it the government that's running it as it should be, or is it the teachers' unions?"

NDP education critic Peter Tabuns said judging by McGuinty's letter, it sounds as though that's exactly what the Liberals plan to do. And if they do, he said, the labour fight with teachers will worsen and overshadow the Liberal leadership race.

"They should rescind Bill 115 and go back, approach negotiations in a very serious way, and remember that the well-being of students and families across Ontario is in the balance," he said.

"And that should be motivating the Liberals when they go to the table, not their own personal political fortunes."

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 deals that work for both sides.

But the unions, including CUPE Ontario, say the law violates their constitutional rights and have vowed to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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