01/04/2013 06:37 EST | Updated 03/06/2013 05:12 EST

Why I Imposed Contracts on Ontario Teachers


In February, the Ontario government began labour talks with our partners in education. Our goal throughout these discussions has always been to make decisions that protect the classroom experience for our students.

Like it did many jurisdictions around the world, the global recession left Ontario with a stubborn deficit. We have one of the best school systems in the world -- recognized as such by the OECD and studied around the world -- and, as a government, we were determined to preserve the gains we've made since coming to office in 2003.

We asked teachers -- who have benefited from on average of 24% pay increases over the past nine years, improvements in working conditions and support for more professional development -- to take a pay freeze and to trim outdated benefits like the banking of unused sick days to be paid out at retirement. Instead of pay increases for teachers, we chose to continue to roll out full-day kindergarten and maintain smaller class sizes. The choices we made have also allowed us to preserve 20,000 teaching and support staff jobs.

Our decision to concentrate funding on students and the classroom experience was easy. Unlike many other jurisdictions, we were able to address fiscal realities without firing teachers.

After 10 months of negotiations, multiple provincial memorandums of understanding, and hundreds of hours, we have seen agreements negotiated representing 55,000 teachers and over 4,000 support staff in the province. Over the holidays, we also reached a template agreement with CUPE -- which represents an additional 55,000 support staff. That's 140,000 education workers who successfully bargained agreements with the government.

These deals -- and others reached with doctors and public sector managers -- show that it's absolutely possible to reach agreements with public sector works that balance their interests with the government priority of protecting important public services.

Unfortunately, after nearly a year of talks, other parties remained far apart, some deliberately so.

Some unions have engaged in strike action that has closed schools, restricted learning for students and created an unstable learning environment. It has been stressful and chaotic for many students and parents.

Then those same union leaders asked the government not to move ahead with collective agreements, yet they had no other solutions to offer -- except more disruption.

That's why, on my advice, through an Order In Council, the Lieutenant Governor in Council has put in place collective agreements for all school boards and unions that were unable to deliver ratified and approved collective agreements by the deadline.

This means that, as a result of the agreements put in place and the good work of those who negotiated local collective agreements independently, collective agreements are now in place for 2012-14 for all bargaining units covered by the Putting Students First Act. Any strike actions while a collective agreement is in place are illegal.

This was not our first option. Negotiation was always our preferred approach. But given the reluctance of some to come to the table and negotiate, putting in place agreements was necessary given our shared fiscal challenges, the steep hill we have to climb to position our province for stability and prosperity, and to meet our goal of protecting the gains we have made in education.

The Putting Students First Act had a specific goal: to protect the gains we've made in education during these challenging fiscal circumstances, and to minimize any labour disruption during negotiations. The Act has now accomplished this goal, and so the government will move to repeal Bill 115 by the end of January.

We heard from teachers that The Putting Students First Act was the only thing standing between students and their extracurricular activities. It is our hope that with contracts in place and Bill 115 ready to be repealed, teachers will do what is best for students and put Ontario students first.