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Walker says teachers' unions not being reasonable as contract dispute continues

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MPP Bill Walker says Ontario’s major teachers’ unions are not being reasonable in contract negotiations with the province even as his government has presented concessions at the bargaining table.

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“The reality is the union hasn’t offered anything from their perspective. And we continue to say one per cent is a fair and reasonable amount in light of today’s economic conditions and we’re going to maintain that,” the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Progressive Conservative politician said Friday in an interview.

While union officials assert that wages are not the main sticking point, Walker said if that’s the case he believes they would have signed the agreement by now given the concessions that have been proposed.

“If you and I were going to the bargaining table and I keep coming to the table offering different thought processes and different options and alternatives and you didn’t, I wouldn’t say that that’s fair bargaining. I think everybody has to come with a mindset of how do we come to the table to find a resolve. And if you just keep saying, I’m not going to do anything except demand more then that’s not reasonable bargaining,” he said.

Walker said he thinks PC Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have been “very reasonable, very fair by coming to the table in the spirit of good, open negotiations to say we want to find a deal that actually keeps kids in the classroom.”

Walker spoke to The Sun Times on the same day as local teachers with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) staged a picket in front of his Owen Sound constituency office.

That was one of 11 locations in Grey-Bruce for the one-day strike by Bluewater Teacher Local and Bluewater Occasional Teachers’ Local members.

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ETFO began rotating strikes at Ontario school boards this week and more are planned for select boards next week.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association also held a one-day province-wide strike this week – including at Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board schools – while the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation held a one-day strike Jan. 15.

All three unions, along with the one representing Franco-Ontarian teachers, have begun work-to-rule campaigns.

The ETFO says it was last at the bargaining table with the province Dec. 19 and still has no new dates secured with the government’s representatives to continue talks.

Walker said the province is “fully committed” to always being at the bargaining table and as soon as the arbitrators want the two sides to return, the government will be there.

“I would prefer to see people at the table bargaining so we can actually get a deal so the kids stay in the classroom. That would be the expectation from me as a parent and that would be the expectation from me as the MPP,” he said.

Walker said the PC government inherited “a lot of challenges” from the previous Liberal government and it must stand firm to get the province back on the track.

ETFO has said it is committed to continuing action to ensure a new collective agreement “protects and improves the learning and working conditions in public elementary schools in Ontario.”

The province’s teachers’ unions have launched a charter challenge against the Ford government’s Bill 124, which caps public sector wage increases at one per cent a year for three years.

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The unions say the legislation “violates the teachers’ and education workers’ constitutional rights to engage in unrestricted collective bargaining activity, which is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Lecce has said the stumbling block in the contract dispute is the union’s request for a cost-of-living wage increase of about two per cent a year.

The unions, meanwhile, say the major issues include proposed increases to class sizes, mandatory e-learning for secondary students and requests for the province to provide adequate supports for special needs students, address violence in classrooms and commit to maintaining the current full-day kindergarten model.

Lecce has said the province has made “reasonable offers” during contract talks, such as reducing its proposed class size increases from 28 to 25 students for high schools and mandatory e-learning credits from four to two.

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