Labour negotiations Q&A – Ontario

(Much of the information here will apply to other jurisdictions with similar laws and structures related education-sector bargaining.)

Before we get to the Q&A, I think that it would be good to define some of the more common acronyms:

The main groups involved in the Public Board negotiations are:

  • OPSBA: Ontario Public School Boards Association represents the 42 English Public School Boards and School Authorities at their central tables. Representatives of individual School Boards set the positions to be taken by the OPSBA central table negotiating team, and then vote to ratify the terms of a proposed collective agreement. Every local Public School Board must include in its collective agreements those conditions accepted by the OPSBA team at the central OPSBA has no place or say in local bargaining; every School Board must negotiate on its own.
  • OSSTF: Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation represents all permanent and occasional secondary teachers in Public Schools in both central and local negotiations. OSSTF also represents non-teacher school staff in some Boards. The individual OSSTF “Districts” (one for each School Board) have say in the local talks, but the OSSTF provincial negotiators are usually heavily involved at the local table negotiations, and strategically coordinate positions taken with individual School Boards at the local tables.
  • ETFO: Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario plays the same role for elementary teachers in Public School Boards as OSSTF plays in secondary schools. As with OSSTF, ETFO also represents some school-based staff who aren’t teachers. The individual ETFO “locals” (one for each School Board) have say in the local talks, but the OSSTF provincial negotiators are usually heavily involved at the local table negotiations, and strategically coordinate positions taken with individual School Boards at the local tables.
  • CUPE: Canadian Union of Public Employees represents the majority of school-based staff who aren’t teachers. Because CUPE, OSSTF, and ETFO all represent some school-based non-teaching staff, they have a joint negotiating team at the central table. Negotiators from the provincial CUPE office sometimes take part in local table

The main organizations involved in Catholic School Board negotiations:

  • OCSTA: Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association plays the same role as OPSBA, but for Catholic Boards instead of Public Boards. Teacher negotiations for Public Boards and Catholic Boards are completely independent of each other, though both groups keep track of what is going on in each other’s talks. As with OPSBA, the Ministry and OCSTA take a united bargaining position at “central table” talks.
  • OECTA: Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association represents both elementary and secondary teachers in catholic Boards. The powers and role played by OECTA are the same as for OSSTF and ETFO.
  • CUPE: Canadian Union of Public Employees represents school-based non-teacher staff in many Catholic Boards, and plays the same role as it does in the Public Board negotiations.


Q1: What is a “Collective Agreement”?

A collective agreement is often called a contract, and it sets out the terms of employment (pay, benefits, seniority rights, working conditions, etc.). Once it is signed, both employer and employee must follow the terms of collective agreement, with a Union representing the employees. A collective agreement is usually arrived at by negotiations between the employer and the Union. In the case of an impasse the employer (with approval of the Minister of Education) or the Union can ask an arbitrator to set the terms of employment. If the government chooses to, it can pass a law ending a strike or lock-out and impose terms of employment for the new collective agreement.

Essential service employees (e.g. firefighters and police) aren’t allowed to strike and their terms of employment are set by an arbitrator. The provincial legislation does not define teachers and other School Board employees to be providing an essential service.


Q2: What Unions are involved in negotiating education sector collective agreements?

Every School Board deals with a number of Unions, each representing various categories of employees each with its own collective agreement (e.g. permanent elementary teachers, contract secondary teachers, caretakers, early childhood educators). The number of Unions and the number of collective agreements vary from one School Board to another. A Union is sometimes formally referred to as the employee’s bargaining agent.

Elementary teachers in English language Public School Boards are represented Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO); secondary teachers by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. (OSSTF). All English language Catholic School Board teachers are represented by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). All French language Board teachers are represented by L’Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEEFO).

Non-teaching School Board employees (e.g. caretakers, office staff, education assistants) are represented by a number of different Unions (including ETFO and OSSTF), with the majority being represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).


Q3: Who else is involved in the negotiations?

There are four associations representing School Boards at the province-wide central table, one for each of Public School Boards (Ontario Public School Boards Association – OPSBA), Catholic School Boards (Ontario Catholic School Trustee Acssociation – OCSTA), French Public School Boards (ASCEPO), and French Catholic School Boards (AFOCSC). The Ministry of Education is also part of the central table negotiations, which deal with monetary issues and those issues that are common to most School Boards.

At local tables individual School Boards negotiate with the Unions. The Ministry isn’t involved.


Q4: Whose interests must the Unions, the School Boards, and the Ministry represent during negotiations?

Under the Education Act each School Board’s primary legal obligation is to promote “student achievement and well-being”.   School Boards also have the obligation to manage the resources provided to them in a prudent manner.

Under the Labour Relations Act a Union’s primary responsibility is to advance the interest of its members. None of the Labour Relations Act, the Education Act, nor the School Board Bargaining Act make mention of any Union obligation to consider the effect of their bargaining demands on student achievement and well-being, or of being fiscally responsible.

There are no legal obligations placed on the Ministry of Education, but in practice their role is to ensure that education-sector collective agreements do not impose costs of the Province that are beyond the money allocated in the budget to the education-sector. The Education Act does mention that the Ministry should work with School Boards to promote student achievement and well-being.


Q5: What is the difference between a Union local (or district) and the overall Provincial Union? How does this affect negotiations?

Employees of School Boards are directly represented by their local Union. The local Unions throughout the province belong to their overall provincial Union (e.g. OSSTF “District 12” represents Toronto District School Board’s secondary teachers, and is a member of the provincial OSSTF Union). Representatives of each Union local elect the provincial Union Executive Committee.

The provincial Union negotiating team represents all their members at the province-wide “central” labour negotiations. In some cases, the provincial Union Executive negotiating team also participates in talks with local School Boards, and in some cases the provincial Union Executive Committee can veto an agreement arrived at between the Union Local and the School Board. Each Union has its own by-laws and way of splitting power between the provincial and local bodies.


Q6: Why is there so little information about what is being discussed during negotiations?

The common practice in negotiations is for all sides to agree to not make the issues public (often called a “press blackout”). The reasons are practical, legal, and long-term good of students. The practical reason is that taking a firm public position on an issue often makes it very hard to reach a compromise. The legal reason is that the other side can charge you with “unfair bargaining”. The long-term reason is that no-one wants to demoralize the teachers and other staff whose greatest desire is to support the students in their school, or to create unfair rifts between teachers and their students (most teachers know as little about the detailed negotiations as the typical parent).


 Q7: Who calls a strike?

Strikes are called by the Executive Committee of the Union. While local Union Executives can theoretically call a local strike, in practice these are called by the province-wide Executive Committee. This allows the Union to strategically target individual schools or School Boards in order to put the greatest pressure on the Ministry of Education and School Boards to agree with the Union’s demands. Sometimes a Union will set a strike strategy before talks even begin (OSSTF seems to have decided which School Boards to strike before talks began this year).

The Union gets to pick which schools and School Boards it will strike, when these strikes will take place, and for how long. One Union strategy uses a series of short “rotating” strikes that move from school to school, or from School Board to School Board.


Q8: When can a Union call a strike?

The School Boards Collective Bargaining Act and the Ontario Labour Relations Act set out complex rules as to when a Union can call a strike, or a School Board can lock-out school staff. Without going into details, after a Union decides that negotiating talks have broken down it has to wait a few weeks before it can tell its members to strike. Unions have to give five days notice of planned strike or other labour action, though it doesn’t have to say what the action will be.


Q9: What is a “partial withdrawal of services”, commonly called a “work-to-rule”?

A work-to-rule is a type of strike.   It doesn’t involve employees walking out and setting up a picket line. In a work-to-rule, school staff would go to school each day but do less than they would ordinarily do. This refusal to do some tasks can take many forms.

This year ETFO is instructing its members to refuse to put comments of report cards, boycott staff meetings, and not refuse to administer the Ministry’s annual EQAO standardized tests. In 2011 OSSTF and ETFO strongly “suggested” that their members not supervise or coach extra-curricular activities.

A major advantage of a work-to-rule to a Union is that school staff continues to be paid by the School Board. This means that the Union doesn’t have to pay its striking members. A major advantage to students and families is that students continue to go to school and learn, and families don’t have to organize care for young children during the day. Much of the work not being done places a major burden on the Principal of each school.


Q10: What is a strike vote?

Before a Union Executive Committee can call a strike, it must have a vote of Union members giving it that authority. Strike votes are usually held before negotiations start, and almost always have overwhelming majorities for “yes”.   Unions rarely report the number of members who voted. For members to deny their Executive the authority to call a strike effectively lets the employer set the terms of the collective agreement. Once the authority to strike is given, it is very difficult to to rescind.


Q11: What is a ratification vote?

Once the Union and School Board negotiating teams reach an agreement, the Union team presents the proposed agreement to the Union members for a vote to accept or reject it. The School Board team does the same thing with the Board’s Trustees. If both the members and Trustees accept the proposal it becomes the new collective agreement. If one or both sides vote against the proposal, the two negotiating teams return to bargaining.


Q12: What is a “me-too” clause?

In previous negotiations the Union that signed their agreement first insisted on a me-too clause. This means that if any other Union that signs later gets a better deal, the first Union gets the improved deal too. It has been common for OECTA and Catholic Boards to reach an agreement first, and let OSSTF, ETFO, and the Public Boards continue to battle, often at the expense of students. This gives OECTA everything that the Public Board Unions have negotiated for, but without any of the disruption to schools, loss of staff morale, and public confidence.


Q13: What is “strike pay”?

When a Union calls a full strike the Union members on strike aren’t paid by the School Board. To protect its members from serious financial hardship, the Union pays striking members. In return, those on strike must spend time on the picket line.   This strike pay is funded by the Union collects in dues from its members over the course of years. OSSTF, ETFO, and other education sector Unions have not had to provide strike pay for many years. It is estimated that each OSSTF has about $60M and ETFO more than $100M to support its strikes.


Q14: The media often refers to “local” and “central” bargaining. What is the difference?

In 2014 Bill 122 was passed setting up a two-level bargaining process.

The first level is called the central table. The central tables deals with issues that are common to many School Boards and items that involve significant costs (e.g. salaries, benefits, student-to-teacher ratios).   There are more than a dozen central tables, one for each combination of the three categories of School Boards (Public, Catholic, and French) and each of the many related Unions.

The second level is made of several hundred local tables, one for each combination of individual School Board and Union. The local tables deal with any issue that is not dealt with at the central tables.

Whatever is agreed to at the relevant central table must be included in every related local table agreement.

In theory a local table deal could be reached before the province-wide central table deal. In practice, this is unlikely.


Q15: Who negotiates at each central table?

On one side of each central table is the provincial negotiating team of the relevant Union (see Q3). Some central tables involve only one Union (e.g. ETFO for elementary teachers); other central tables involve a council representing several Unions (e.g. CUPE, ETFO, OSSTF and others for caretakers).

On the other side of each central table is a team from the association representing the relevant School Boards (Public, Catholic, and French). The Public School Boards are represented by the Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA); the Catholic School Boards are represented by the Ontario Catholic Trustees Association (OCSTA); the English and French language School Boards are represented by a council established by the L’Association des conseils scolaires des écoles publiques de l’Ontario (ACSEPO) and L’Association franco-ontarienne des conseils scolaires catholiques (AFOCSC).

Representatives of the Ministry of Education sit at each central table and have the power to veto any terms agreed by the School Boards and Union teams. They are in effect a third party in central table negotiations.


Q16: Who negotiates at the local tables?

On one side of each local table is a Union local bargaining team usually supported by negotiator(s) from the Union’s provincial office.

The other side is a bargaining team from the local School Board. Some School Boards have fewer than 10,000 students (4% the size of the Toronto District School Board) and have a very limited number of experienced negotiators. The School Board Associations are not allowed to supported local School Boards at the local tables.

There are no representatives of the Ministry of Education at the local tables.

Some Unions allow their Provincial Executive Committee to veto deals made at a local table. Other Union locals are free to sign their own deal with little interference from their Provincial Executive Committee.


Q17: What issues are being dealt with at the “Local tables”?

This will vary from Board to Board, but include such things as who is involved when discipline is needed, when staff are allowed to do Union business during the work day, and how long specific information can be kept in an employee’s file. Ask your School Board Trustee about the local issues that are important in your Board.



Q18: Why are strikes (and “partial withdrawal of services”) taking place in some Boards and not others?

Each Union’s provincial Executive Committee sets a strategy that will apply the most pressure to the Ministry, School Board Associations, and local School Boards. This pressure is often achieved by refusing to go to work so that schools and classes are closed. This hurts students and causes significant hardships for families. The Unions are counting that students and families will demand that the Minister and School Boards end the strike.

A Union might target a School Board that is easy for the media to cover, one with “swing” seats that the governing party might lose in the next election, or one with influential parents and vocal students. It might target a School Board with a high-profile Director of Education or Chair. Or the Union might decide that it is better to spread the pain more broadly by organizing rotating strikes that last a few days in one school or School Board and then move on to another one the next week.