Wanted: a lot more transparency

October 28, 2015   ·   0 Comments

THERE IS A COMMON THREAD between the failure to date of talks between the Ontario government and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and disclosure of the fact that the same government has been furtively paying millions of taxpayers’ dollars to other teachers’ unions, supposedly as compensation for the cost of collective bargaining.

In both cases, secrecy has been the rule, from start to finish.

Secrecy has almost always been the rule in bargaining within the private sector, an exception being when talks collapse and the employer tries to force a secret ballot on its ‘final’ offer. And that’s as it should be, since the public has little involvement in the process, at least until a long strike causes economic woes in a company town or the employer threatens to close its Canadian operations and move to a low-wage jurisdiction.

But in the public sector the public surely has a right to know what’s going on, since it’s the taxpayers who invariably are on the hook.

All we really know at this point is that the current legislation provides for two levels of negotiations, province-wide talks dealing with such key matters as salaries, benefits and class sizes, and local talks confined to remaining issues, whatever they might be.

Another thing that’s obvious is that the province’s school boards no longer have the ability to tax, and their only revenues apart from provincial grants are for things like sale or rental of their facilities and donations of awards, etc.

We do know that agreements have been reached at the provincial level covering high school teachers and elementary and sec- ondary teachers in the Roman Catholic and francophone schools, but not with either the ETFO or non-teaching staffs represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

And even today there has been no disclosure of the terms of the agreements reached, only the fact that they include some wage increases but somehow meet the government’s target of no net increase in overall expenditures, presumably because of a decrease in enrolments.

And although negotiations with both the ETFO and CUPE resumed this week, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals have served notice that failure of the talks to produce agreements this week could lead to school boards being able to dock the pay of teachers and other employees who engage in job actions.

For its part, the ETFO – which is by far the largest union in the education field, represent- ing about 70,000 public school teachers – is threatening to escalate its job actions to the point of launching rotating one-day strikes.

And yet at this point the public hasn’t a clue about just what remains in dispute at the pro- vincial level, having been told only that the issues of salaries and class size have been resolved and that two other issues remain.

A similar situation exists with the negotiations between the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Toronto District School Board, the province’s largest board, with the union suggesting job actions as early as next week, without giving Torontonians a clue as to the nature of the issues barring a local agreement.

For reasons never explained to date, the legislation apparently fails to spell out what happens if talks produce an impasse, seemingly leaving strikes or lockouts as the only options available. The absence of the arbitration tool as the ultimate weapon was probably intentional, the government knowing that arbitrators tend to be too generous and not bound by the government’s financial targets.

In the circumstances, we think the time has come for there to be far more transparency than has been witnessed to date.
In fact, we should like to hear from both the government and the unions why any secrecy should exist in bargaining that involves not just the future of our children’s education but also the public’s tax burden.

Our suspicion is that by holding such negotiations in public – ideally by televising them or at least having them streamed on to the Internet – we would soon see the remaining issues resolved.

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