Ontario education minister wants teachers to accept private mediation

Ontario’s education minister said Monday he has called on teachers’ unions to accept private mediation in order to ensure contracts are in place before the start of the new school year, but two unions said it’s too early for that and two others said they weren’t actually asked.

Stephen Lecce said parents deserve a sense of predictability for September and private mediation helped to reach a deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents support staff.

“We want to get these done immediately,” he said after a news conference on student mental-health literacy. “We want to keep children in a stable, positive, safe learning environment through the rest of this year, and frankly, every year, after years of instability in their lives.”

A mediator would be a neutral party “creating pressure on all of us, unions, the government, the school boards, to get a deal done,” Lecce said.

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“I’d like to get these wrapped up before the school year,” he said.

While Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said “anything is possible,” that timeline is not looking likely.

“I would not say we’re close, no,” she said in an interview. “(Private mediation) has been talking about at the table, but we’re not at the stage that would be the next step. We haven’t really had the meaningful negotiations that we’d want to have before we enter into mediation.”

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said the same.

“While mediation has the potential to be an effective tool in the bargaining process, especially to help parties resolve an impasse, we are not at that point,” president Barb Dobrowolski wrote in a statement.

OECTA does not even have an agreement with the school boards on which issues should be dealt with in central negotiations and which should be left to the local bargaining that follows the central deal, she said.

“It would also help to make more dates available,” wrote Dobrowolski. “The government’s continued limited availability, which has been three to four days per month at most, is not conducive to setting a quicker pace for negotiations.”

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the union representing teachers in French-language boards said they have not been asked to consider private mediation.

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The CUPE deal came in November at the end of a whirlwind bargaining process that saw education workers walk off the job for two days after the government passed — then later repeated — legislation that imposed a contract on them, banned them from striking and used the notwithstanding clause to allow the override of certain charter rights.

CUPE said the deal came with a $1-per-hour raise each year, or about 3.59 per cent annually, for the average worker.

Littlewood, of the OSSTF, said it seems like Lecce just wants the teachers to sign the same deal that CUPE got, but it doesn’t work for her members. She hopes to see more meaningful discussions on supporting for teachers as the government ends streaming, where students choose “applied” or “academic” courses in high school.

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