When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty came into office four years ago, he had to overcome a decade of bitter labor-management relations that had alienated teachers and parents alike in the Canadian province. He quickly formed a “guiding coalition” of key education and political leaders within the government to agree on a strategy.
Among his first actions was to eliminate a paper-and-pencil test for teacher licensure that most educators found demeaning; a mentoring and induction program for new teachers replaced it in 2005.
And, in an unprecedented move, as local teachers’ union contracts expired throughout the province in 2004, the government reached out to the leadership of the teachers’ federations to engage in talks to move the bargaining process forward.
That December, the government announced new measures to sustain “peace and stability” in Ontario’s publicly financed schools. In exchange for agreeing to two- or four-year contracts, rather than the one-year pacts that had been the norm, the government guaranteed annual salary increases for all educators between the 2004-05 and 2007-08 school years. It also launched the first-ever “provincial dialogues” with Ontario’s four teachers’ unions and their respective school boards’ associations to discuss government policies that affected teachers, particularly teacher workload, staffing levels, and class sizes.
“It was very controversial,” recalled Emily Noble, the president of the 60,000-member Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario from 2003 to 2007. “Negotiations had always been local.”
But the talks led to the successful negotiation, without strikes, of four-year contracts in all of Ontario’s school districts.
“In the years preceding that, we just didn’t talk to people in government at all,” said Rhonda Kimberley-Young, the secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, an umbrella group for the four teachers’ unions that is not involved in bargaining.“Suddenly, we had a government that was calling us all the time, setting up new structures for dialogue.”
The provincial government established two new mechanisms to deal with potential conflicts and to ensure two-way communication with the field.
A Student Success Commission, with representatives of the teachers’ unions and the school boards, advises the minister of education on contentious issues arising from its high school initiatives. A Provincial Stability Commission reviews systemwide issues arising from the four-year labor agreements at the elementary level and provides an alternative to formal arbitration and grievance processes. It includes representatives from the unions and the school boards, as well as a senior government official. In the first four months of operation, the commission reduced the number of potential grievances from 815 to 50.
“I would say it was true consultation,” Ms. Noble said. “There was listening on both parts.”
Donna Marie Kennedy, a past president of the approximately 30,000-member Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, said: “As a teacher leader, I would say that the initiative from the government was respect. And that made a tremendous difference.”
“The rules of engagement are really important,” she added. “There’s open-minded communication. You’re never going to get everything you want, but there’s always a middle ground you can find.”
Although everyone says the four-year agreements allowed breathing room that didn’t exist before, the question is whether such peace and stability can be sustained.
“The problem is what happens next time,” said Ben Levin, the deputy minister of education from 2004 to April of this year. “It will be important to find a way to achieve fair and reasonable contracts successfully again in 2008, but it’s not yet clear how that will happen.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Peace and Stability’ Campaign Prevails for Ontario’s Unions