The Ontario Ministry of Education reached tentative two-year contract extension deals with Ontario Catholic and French teachers and school support staff, which would ensure a measure of labour peace through the next provincial election.

The Ministry announced on January 7, 2017, that it had reached a tentative agreement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees ("CUPE"), which represents 55,000 support staff.1

On January 10, 2017, the Ministry announced that it had reached a tentative two year deal with L'Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens ("AEFO").2

And on January 27, 2017, the Ministry announced that it had reached a tentative two year agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association ("OECTA").3

If ratified, the CUPE agreement, AEFO agreement and OECTA agreement would operate until August 31, 2019, which falls well after the June 2018 provincial election.

The Ministry has not released information about the status of negotiations with other teachers' unions and support workers. Ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin said in a recent e-mail to the Toronto Star, "We are in the process of confirming additional dates with other groups over the coming weeks to continue our discussions on remedy and the possibility of contract extensions."4

"As discussions are ongoing with other unions, and until members have had an opportunity to review and vote, we are unable to provide specifics at this time."5

The details of the tentative agreements with CUPE, AEFO and OECTA have not been released. Education workers represented by CUPE will be voting on the tentative contract extension reached at the talks with the Ministry. On January 9, 2017, local CUPE leaders met in Toronto to discuss the outcome of those talks and they agreed to present the tentative extensions to members across the province.6 Ratification votes will be held in the weeks to come. No details of the tentative extension will be released until CUPE members have had an opportunity to review and vote.

The Ministry has not clarified how the current agreement's salary increases — a one per cent lump sum payment, a one per cent increase in 2016 and a further .5 per cent increase in January 2017 — would operate over the additional two years.

The contract extension talks arose as part of discussions with teachers' unions and other education workers over a court ruling that found that the Government violated their collective bargaining rights with the implementation of the Putting Students First Act, 2012 ("PSFA") in 2012.

The PSFA imposed contracts on teachers and other education workers that froze some of their wages and limited their ability to strike. As a result of this legislation, five unions took the government to court. In a ruling issued on April 20, 2016, Mr. Justice Thomas Lederer of the Ontario Superior Court sided with the unions, but left the question of a remedy up to the government and unions to determine. 7

Extensions would likely mean providing additional wage increases and altering terms to ensure the French elementary and secondary teachers and education workers do not strike before a vote expected in June 2018. The government may have to amend the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, 2014 (the "Act") to extend the term of the contracts.

All collective agreements with teachers and other education workers in the province will expire on August 31, 2017.

During the last week of September 2016, Premier Kathleen Wynne said that the Government was prepared to loosen provincial purse strings for the next round of negotiations with public-sector unions.

The Premier confirmed that the Government will provide more funds in an attempt to reach settlements in the next round of bargaining, by lifting the requirement that new deals be net zero.8

The Premier stated, "That was in a period of time and we have been through that period. It's been a challenging time in those conversations with public-sector employees.” The Premier added, “We have to work with our (union) partners so that they can be supported in the work that they do."9

Treasury Board President Liz Sandals, who will oversee labour negotiations across the public sector, said that as the province's economy improves, she will be reviewing how much money is available for labour agreements. In 2017, the Government expects to table a balanced provincial budget.

The first round of bargaining under the Act resulted in nine central agreements. Although 456 local agreements have been negotiated with the union locals and school boards across the province, there are a small number of local agreements still outstanding. The Act formally introduced a two-tier system of bargaining in education, with financial matters, such as salary, maternity leave and sick leave, to be addressed at the provincial tables, leaving individual boards to reach separate agreements on local issues.

In the event that the Catholic teachers, French teachers and school support workers ratify the contract extensions, there will be considerable pressure on the other teachers' unions and education workers to enter into similar extensions. The Ministry appears motivated and committed to continuing its discussions with other groups around the possibility of contract extensions. The goal is not only to avoid labour unrest during the next provincial election, but to provide stability in the education sector until August 2019. And, critically important, a further two years of labour peace will be beneficial to all Ontario students in terms of ensuring consistency, continuity and a positive learning and teaching environment in our schools.