Ontario high school teachers approach negotiations in new, transparent way

Want to know what Ontario’s high school teachers are seeking in their contract with the province and school boards? Or what the Doug Ford government is proposing in return?

The teachers’ union is posting it all online.

The same “transparent” bargaining scenario is under way in Saskatchewan, although there the government followed the lead of the teachers and on its own publicized its offer.

In the U.S., some unions allow full-out open bargaining, with talks accessible to members and the public — and at Toronto’s York University, the union representing teaching assistants also posts materials online and lets members observe negotiations.

“It’s definitely outside the norm for collective bargaining in Canada — even in North America,” said Stephanie Ross, director of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.

While some prefer the traditional, behind-closed-doors negotiating, Ross said “there’s no law that says bargaining should not happen in more open and transparent ways” and that doing so is a way of “trying to leverage different kinds of power during the bargaining process.”

In the U.S., it has been used as a tool by more right-wing governments to “expose” what it believes to be unreasonable union demands, experts say, though whether that has transpired is up for debate.

Some say it is a way to engage union members, combat misinformation and boost public support.

So far, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has seen a lot of traffic to its website and says its 60,000 members have reacted “overwhelmingly positive to the move,” said President Harvey Bischof.

His union is in the midst of difficult talks with the province and school boards as the government plans to boost average class sizes from 22 to 28 over the next four years, implement four mandatory e-learning credits for graduating, and in the process shed thousands of teaching jobs. Schools have already seen scores of classes and course sections cut as a result.

Rob Weil, a director at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., said his union “does not support open bargaining as a general rule because we do not believe it allows for the innovation and partnership needed to create the best agreement for students.”

However, he said “in some extreme circumstances — like the current situation in Ontario — we understand when a union has to take steps to ensure the quality education their members provide.”

The method has been criticized for possibly encouraging grandstanding, and an Ontario government source said it can hinder the free flow of creative ideas that are often floated at the bargaining table.

But others believe it forces reasonable proposals on both sides, given everything has to withstand public scrutiny.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the government will continue with traditional bargaining.

“I will negotiate at the table,” Lecce said recently. “It is the only place deals are reached.”

In a typical bargaining scenario, small teams on each side are elected or appointed to hammer out a deal, based on each side’s priorities, which is then put to a membership vote for ratification.

Oftentimes, to reach a deal, the sides might have unofficial talks away from the table, but in open bargaining that doesn’t happen.

In Nevada, where open bargaining was used by health-care workers, sometimes 300 people were in the room observing talks. Up to the minute discussions are often shared online via social media.

Ross said that in the U.S., where “open bargaining has been used or foisted upon unions, I’m not sure it’s had the effect of mobilizing the public against unions. In many instances, open bargaining exposes the employer, and the employer’s approach, to bargaining that comes under public criticism.”

At York University, Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees has used some form of open bargaining for the past 20 years.

In public sector negotiations, “the public has an interest in what happens,” said Ross. “And that’s especially true of education. We know that there are high levels of public interest … we are engaged in discussions about how our shared collective resources are going to be used to provide the services we need.”

And, she added, “if negotiations break down, the public’s decision about what side to take can affect who wins.”

OSSTF, she added, “is basically making a bet that the public is going to be on their side if they are really able to see what’s going on at the bargaining table.”

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The union “wants to be seen as a defender of public education in the face of cuts. They hope open bargaining will help expose the Ontario government’s arguments, to show that that side is not acting on the side of public education.”

Ross said OSSTF is hoping the public — who polls have clearly shown do not support the government’s moves on class size or elearning — will help pressure the province.

The drawbacks she sees are that it puts a lot of pressure on negotiating teams.

“It is often said that collective agreements aren’t what either side really desires but what each side can actually live with, and that means compromise,” she said, noting members vote on deals regardless of how deals are bargained.

Transparent bargaining in the education sector is yet another change, on top of the current two-tier bargaining implemented by the previous Liberal government that sees central tables involving provincial union executives, the provincial government and school trustee associations handle big-money items like salary and sick days, leaving smaller issues to individual boards and union locals.

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association agreed it is highly unusual, and said “our bottom line is we just want to work toward an agreement that is good for students.”

Because this type of bargaining is unusual, “we don’t know, what does it mean? What is the impact?”

However, Abraham added, “it’s an interesting way forward. But for us, we are going to continue the way we are right now.”

A senior government official has told the Star that open bargaining “is not common practice. We are still trying to find the best path to move forward.”

However, the official said being so open could “fundamentally frustrate the bargaining process… the good faith exchange, the flow of ideas at the table.”

The OSSTF represents high school teachers, but also some support staff — including education assistants, social workers and speech pathologists, in elementary and secondary schools — whose ranks have also seen cutbacks.

Maija Duncan, chair of CUPE 3903, said in the last round of bargaining, members could attend any negotiations, but not speak. All documents were posted online.

“The main ideas are transparency and accessibility,” she said, and members’ interest is high.

She said the union has a long, pre-bargaining process where proposals are made and approved by members — she said one even came via Twitter from a member seeking a place to breastfeed on campus, which was eventually incorporated into the new contract.

When asked if putting initial proposals out there boosts expectations, she said “people are aware of what the bottom line is, and that realistically the first pitch” isn’t what the final deal will look like.

Although the union has gone on numerous strikes over the years, she said it’s not a result of the open bargaining, noting that the method has led to very successful deals for her members without any job action.

Kristin Rushowy

TORONTO STAR

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