TORONTO Premier Doug Ford blamed union leaders Thursday for the public school teachers’ escalating job actions, saying they were holding parents “hostage” and hurting the province’s economy.
Ford also vowed to not give in to the union’s demands for a two per cent wage increase, which the government maintains is a key issue in the stalled bargaining negotiations with the province’s public school teachers, who have been without a contract since August.
“I think they don’t have good leadership, the head of the unions,” Ford told a news conference. “They want to argue, no matter what premier, no matter what government is in power.”
All four unions representing teachers and education workers in Ontario are engaged in various job actions, including rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns.
Ford’s comment came on the same day as the union representing the province’s elementary teachers gave notice to hold its second day of rotating strikes on Tuesday, affecting four boards _ Grand Erie, Trillium Lakelands, Renfrew, and Superior-Greenstone.
Ontario’s French school system also started a work-to-rule campaign Thursday that will see teachers no longer completing some administrative duties.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said Ford’s comments were an attempt to drive a wedge between union members and their leaders.
“This is a tired old tactic from this premier to try to pretend there’s a division between the membership and the leadership,” Harvey Bischof said. “I challenge him again, if he believes I’m not properly representing the wishes of the members, to exercise his right to have my members vote on their contract proposals.”
The president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said her members voted 97 per cent in favour of giving union leadership a strike mandate and believe they are “the last line of defence” against government cuts.
“Parents understand we must do what is necessary to defend quality publicly funded education,” Liz Stuart said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the government announced plans to compensate parents of children affected by rotating strikes, in a move union leaders characterized as a “bribe.”
Under the plan, parents whose kids aren’t yet enrolled in school but attend school-based child-care centres affected by the strikes will get up to $60 per day, while those with children in grades 1 through 7 will get $40 per day. There will be no compensation for parents of secondary school students, except for those with children with special needs who will receive up to $40 per day.
The government said that as of Thursday morning, over 33,000 parents had applied for the compensation.
Ford said parents support his government in the tense labour negotiations with teachers, but Megan Houston, a historian and mother of three from Georgina, Ont., said the government’s move was underhanded and akin to bribery.
However, she’ll still be collecting the cheques.
“I’m going to put some of that money that I get from the government, some of those taxpayer funds, right back into the pockets of the teachers,” she said, explaining that she’ll donate the money to her kids’ school.
The Progressive Conservative government has passed legislation capping public sector wage increases at one per cent, something the teachers’ union are challenging in court and opposing at the bargaining table.
The government is grappling with a $7.4-billion deficit and Ford said the pay cap is necessary to help address the province’s fiscal challenges.
Ford urged the union leaders to be “responsible,” adding that the labour disruptions were hurting the economy because many parents were not able to work.
“It probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
“We either stay stagnant and roll over, like the previous Liberal government did and give the unions whatever they want, or we be responsible and respect the taxpayer’s money and be fair,” he said.
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser chastized Ford for disparaging the unions’ leadership, saying he should instead order his negotiating team back to the bargaining table.
“It’s just a ploy to try and divide people,” Fraser said. “I think parents and teachers deserve much more from the premier than those comments.”
Teachers were outraged last year when the Ford government announced that average high school class sizes would increase and four e-learning courses would be mandatory for graduation. The government has since scaled back those plans, but union officials have said that it’s not enough