As cuts begin to take effect, Ontario education unions look to fight the changes through contract negotiations and continued efforts to mobilize public support
Teachers’ and other education unions in Ontario have spent the last several months warning about the looming damage from the Ford government’s reductions in public education funding.
When the school year resumes after Labour Day, students, teachers and support staff will start living with the impacts of the first year of funding reductions.
“The reality of the cuts will begin to set in, as students see the concrete evidence: the courses, programs and access to supports they are losing,” says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF). “Everyone will be returning to a diminished school experience.”
The changes include a move to larger average class sizes (Grades 4 to 8 and high school), reduced funding for certain student services, and related cuts to teaching and support-staff positions. With a four-year phase-in, it will take time to see the full consequences; however, some results are already visible, including course cancellations.
“While the government claims it wants to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the Toronto District School Board has had to cancel 80 STEM courses – one-quarter of total courses cancelled this fall due to larger classes and fewer teachers,” says Bischof.
The effects will multiply in subsequent years, the OSSTF president says. “The march towards ultimately cutting at least 4,000 secondary school teaching jobs is beginning – and we believe the government is trying to hide the fact that the number will actually be double that figure.”
It is not just teaching jobs affected. A number of school boards have already announced layoffs of support staff and people providing services to students with special needs. For example, the Upper Canada District School Board has eliminated 140 full-time equivalent jobs, affecting 177 education workers, including education assistants and speech language assistants.
Vulnerable and at-risk students will suffer the most from these types of cuts, says Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA).
“We have a world-class education system that serves as a model around the globe, and it’s heartbreaking to see how the government is systemically dismantling the elements that define that quality,” Stuart says.
“A year ago, we had funds for mandatory, mental health services for students in Grades 7 and 8 – a time of transition that is difficult for many young people. One of the first steps the government took was to remove that requirement in our schools.”
The education unions and their supporters have been pushing against the changes with marches, rallies, advertising and advocacy with MPPs. The bargaining table provides another forum for their efforts.
Negotiations continue as collective agreements expire
Contracts for teachers and other school staff are set to expire August 31. It is not unusual for education contracts to expire before new ones are negotiated; typically, the terms of the previous agreements continue until new ones are negotiated.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said he wants bargaining with all the education unions to be concluded as quickly as possible. Given the differing education visions of the parties, however, few are predicting speedy and smooth bargaining sessions.
The various unions in the education system are at different stages with their negotiations. The process requires two levels of talks, as teachers and education workers negotiate both at the provincial or central level, and at the local level with school boards. Provincial-level discussions are proceeding for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and OECTA. CUPE is also bargaining at the central table, now with the assistance of a conciliator from the Ministry of Labour.
Meanwhile, school board leaders from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have given their support for job action by their 55,000 members. CUPE education workers across the province will take part in strike votes in the first two weeks of September as the union seeks a strike mandate from its members. This is a step in the bargaining process and does not necessarily mean such action is imminent but does signal members’ support for a fair deal that values their work and protects services for students.
“A strong ‘yes’ on job action delivers a clear message to our counterparts at the bargaining table,” says Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), CUPE’s provincially designated agent for central bargaining.
“It’s a call to restore funding so that education workers can deliver the high-quality education services that our schools rely on. And it’s saying, let’s work together to tackle the issues that threaten the quality of the services provided by education workers,” says Walton.
Meanwhile, efforts to rally public support must continue, says OSSTF’s Harvey Bischof. “We need to enlist the public to resist along with us. We’ll keep them informed of the true impacts of the cuts and urge them to continue to apply pressure to their elected officials.”