06/13/2013 10:35 EDT | Updated 08/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario reaches new contract with Liberals

TORONTO - After a school year plagued by labour unrest, the union representing public elementary teachers reached a tentative agreement with the Ontario government Thursday that freezes wages, but they're already guaranteed at least a two per cent raise in their next contract.

Members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation are paid two per cent less than teachers in the French and Roman Catholic school systems, a situation that will be fixed before the next round of bargaining next year, said Education Minister Liz Sandals.

"We recognize that there is a discrepancy in the pay relative to all the rest of the teachers in Ontario," Sandals told reporters as she announced the new deal.

"We really see no reason from a public policy perspective, when we look into the future, that we would continue to pay Catholic teachers and French teachers more than public teachers."

The extra money for the 76,000 public elementary teachers will cost the province $112 million a year on top of whatever raises the union negotiates next time.

ETFO president Sam Hammond was pleased his members would get equal pay with the other teachers starting next year.

"Nothing could be more inequitable than having our members paid less than teachers in the same profession providing the same quality of education for students," he said.

Meanwhile, the current tentative deal, which mirrors agreements with the public high school teachers, freezes the wages of most elementary educators, but still allows younger teachers to move up the salary grid.

Teachers will take at least one unpaid day off during the course of the contract to help offset the cost of allowing raises for their younger colleagues, said Sandals.

"The cost of compensation was frozen for everybody," she said.

"The union said 'we want people to be able to move on the grid,' and we said 'you can only move on the grid if you do something within the collective agreement that presents savings and that was in the form of the unpaid days.'"

No one wants an unpaid day off, but at least the number of them has been reduced from three to two or possibly even just one, said Hammond.

"Unpaid days for anyone for any reason is not popular," he said. "We have tried to deal as best we can with the realities that we were faced with, and those unpaid days have been reduced."

Most of the province's public 126,000 public elementary and secondary school teachers stopped supervising extracurricular activities last fall to protest Bill 115, which imposed contracts with a two-year wage freeze. ETFO also staged a series of one-day strikes in December to protest the legislation.

Hammond defended the unions protest tactics.

"Listen, if we hadn't done what we did, I wouldn't be standing here right now," he told reporters. "Absolutely, they were worth it."

Eliminating the ability of teachers to bank up to six months' worth of sick days to be paid out at retirement will save the government $1.1 billion dollars, said Sandals, who insisted the overall total savings to the province were $1.8 billion.

The tentative agreement with ETFO includes a provision for 11 sick days a year at 100 per cent pay, with an additional 120 days at 90 per cent pay.

The elementary teachers will also get an enhanced retirement gratuity payout similar to one given to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

The Progressive Conservatives accused the Liberals of spending money the deficit-plagued government doesn't have to buy labour peace with teachers.

"The McGuinty-Wynne government, which created this crisis in our classrooms, has decided that they would increase wages and gratuities at a time when they speak about restraint," complained PC education critic Lisa MacLeod.

The Liberals want the union leaders on side before the next provincial election so they will again participate in the Working Families Coalition, a group of unions that spends millions in each Ontario election on attack ads against the Stories, added MacLeod.

"(Premier) Kathleen Wynne is working as hard as ever to do what Dalton McGuinty has always done, which is have a big payout to their union friends so that union leaders look good in front of their membership and allow them to participate in attack ad campaigns," she said.

The elementary teachers have until June 23 to ratify the agreement in principle, with local bargaining to be concluded no later than Aug. 29.