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New offer moves parties closer, teachers' union says, but strikes still planned

TORONTO — The union representing Ontario's public high school teachers said Wednesday that the education minister's capitulation on class sizes and e-learning moves the parties closer, but it didn't commit to returning to the bargaining table.

TORONTO — The union representing Ontario's public high school teachers said Wednesday that the education minister's capitulation on class sizes and e-learning moves the parties closer, but it didn't commit to returning to the bargaining table.

Informal exploratory talks between the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the province broke down Tuesday night, hours after Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced he was almost entirely backing down on two of the union's major issues.

Lecce offered to increase average high school class sizes from 22 last year to 23 next year — instead of the government's original target of 28 — and allow an opt-out for e-learning courses the Tories previously said would be mandatory.

But the government is not budging beyond an offer to increase wages and benefits by one per cent a year — the unions have asked for two per cent on salary and around six per cent on benefits — and wants concessions on a regulation that dictates seniority-based hiring.

Union president Harvey Bischof said it was problematic that the minister made his announcement in a news conference instead of directly to OSSTF through his bargaining representatives.

He said talks broke off because the government showed no flexibility from its bottom line. Bischof said there were other "significant" issues, though he did not elaborate, but he acknowledged that Lecce's announcement did move the needle.

"We're closer to some of the outcomes that we need to reach in terms of maintaining quality of education than we were when the minister was claiming that 25 to 1 was the right number, a number he stood steadfastly by for months," Bischof said, referring to a previous softening of the government's proposal to increase class sizes.

Lecce's announcement has led to progress with another union. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association returned to bargaining Wednesday.

The minister said given Tuesday's announcement the government should be at the table with all four major unions, not just one.

"I would argue...the fundamental issue that is impeding progress at the table is not classroom sizes any longer," he said.

"It's not online learning because we've given the opt out. It's not special ed because I've ensured 100 per cent investment. It is and remains issues related to merit-based hiring, which many unions oppose fundamentally...and secondly it is about benefits and the general compensation regime."

Teachers in the French system and those represented by OECTA are planning to go ahead with a provincewide strike Thursday. OSSTF also plans to continue with a rotating strike in several boards, including the province's largest in Toronto.

OSSTF and OECTA secondary members are planning a demonstration at the legislature.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario is not engaging in any strikes this week, but the union has said if contract deals aren't reached by Friday, they will begin a new phase of strikes effective Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press