For the second time in as many weeks, the Government of Ontario has announced that they’ve reached a deal with a teachers union. This time, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has reached a tentative agreement with the government, which means that the 83,000 teachers that the ETFO represents will be back to work without further labour disruption once the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
“I’m very relieved and very excited for our members because I know they’ve been under a lot of stress, especially over the last few months,” said Jennifer Hesch, Vice-President / Chief Negotiator of Upper Grand ETFO. “It was a nice surprise for our members to get this news [Friday], and I know that I was contacted by quite a few of them on Facebook, and by email and text, and they’re all excited and happy to hear that we’ve got a deal, but they’re also curious to see what exactly it entails.”
No details from the deal have yet to be released, and local union leaders like Hesch won’t see the tentative agreement until a telephone town hall on Wednesday. On that day, local presidents well also get an answer to the question of how tens of thousands of ETFO members across the province will get the chance to vote on the their new collective agreement.
“I imagine the vote would have to take place online because they’re discouraging social gatherings and meetings, and we’re definitely following those recommendations as we want to make sure that our members are safe,” Hesch said.
For the provincial head of the ETFO, this marks the end of a very rough negotiation that has taken up the entirety of the 2019/2020 school year.
“This has been a very prolonged and difficult bargaining process,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond in a statement. “We are very grateful for the support and unwavering solidarity of our members, and the public who have continued to stand up for public education and the supports that our students and educators need now and in the future.”
“This tentative ETFO agreement builds further momentum for deals and progress that students deserve, following last week’s tentative agreement signed with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA),” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce in his own statement. “We remain focused on landing further deals, to provide stability and certainty to students, parents, and educators.”
Earlier this month, Lecce announced that the government would make concessions to the teachers unions that would cease calls for a class size average of 28, and mandatory e-learning, as well as a guarantee to maintain all-day kindergarten. According to Hesch, that announcement greased the wheels to get a deal with the ETFO.
“It says a lot considering that we went from the government bargaining through the media, making inappropriate comments, and basically slamming the teachers and blaming the union leaders,” Hesch said. “I see that has sort of subsided, and I’m happy to see that they were able to step away from all that, and get down to the business of bargaining.”
Now, only the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens are without a contract, and the solidarity of teachers across all four unions is one of the factors that lead to the suddenly swift deals with the OECTA and ETFO. Hesch, who is also the head of the Guelph and District Labour Council, explained that teachers will still work together until they all have a deal.
“We are still definitely standing in solidarity with other education affiliates because each of us has our own set of bargaining items and goals that we wanted to achieve for our members, and everybody has to be able to get a deal that they think is fair for their members,” said Hesch.
Even with an agreement in place, because of the precautions concerning the spread of COVID-19 it will still be at least two weeks before teachers can get back to learning as usual in the classroom.
“Trust me, teachers want to get back to normal because it’s has not been a normal year at all,” Hesch said with resignation to the current state of affairs.
“Teachers are worried about their own families and themselves, but they’re also worried about their students, and they miss their students,” Hesch added. “They want to go back to school, but they have been given specific direction from the school board to follow what the Provincial government is directing us to do.
Hesch said that the Ministry of Education is co-ordinating with teachers to make sure students who are self-isolating at home have the resources they need to continue learning while schools are closed. Presently, all schools in the Upper Grand and Wellington Catholic District School Boards are scheduled to re-open on April 5.