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A Vote for Your Rights (Collective Bargaining)

Christine Brown

Within  the  next  couple  of  months  you  will receive notification that your ETFO local is holding a vote to ratify the preliminary submission for the upcoming round of negotiations. Teacher locals will be holding their votes by the end of April, and occasional teacher locals by the beginning of June. The timing of votes for educational and  professional  support  personnel  members will vary because, unlike teacher and occasional teacher collective agreements, their agreements do not all expire at the same time.

A preliminary submission is simply an initial set  of  bargaining  proposals  that  is  tabled  for negotiations  between the union and the school board. It is the union’s statement of intent – its comprehensive list of proposed changes to working conditions, compensation, insured benefits, and other employee rights and entitlements. The submission is an ambitious document. By design and without apology, it sets the bar very high. The vote you will be asked to participate in is the first of many meetings convened during bargain- ing, and one of the most important.

It has been a long time since you were last asked to vote on a preliminary submission – four years, to be exact. For newer members of ETFO, a four-year collective agreement may seem like the norm, but veterans will recall that not that long ago collective agreements typically ran for two years, or even one.

Ten  years  ago,  the  legal  framework  under which  Ontario  teachers  bargain  was  dramatically transformed  when teachers were brought under the bargaining framework of the Labour Relations Act(LRA). It made teachers  subject to the same collective bargaining rules as occasional teachers and other school board staff.

Bargaining involves two parallel processes: the process set forth in the LRA and ETFO’s internal process. What follows is a brief review of how the  bargaining process works under  the  LRA. Because it is a summary, of necessity it omits a great many details and possible scenarios.

Bargainin as set out in the LRA

Within a set period before the expiry of the collective agreement, the union gives notice to the employer that it wishes to amend the terms and conditions of employment for its members. By law, the two sides must subsequently meet, and both are subject to a duty to “bargain in good faith.” Meeting this legal test means many things, among them the obligation to engage in meaningful  bargaining,  as  opposed  to  perfunctory bargaining.

A settlement  can  happen  at  any  time,  even before the current agreement expires, though that is rare. Should a settlement not occur before expiry (i.e., before August 31, 2008), the terms and conditions of  the existing  collective agreement will remain in force, unless and until certain conditions are met that would alter the status quo.

No matter how heated the exchanges between the parties may become – and they do – it is important  to  bear  in  mind  that,  one  way  or another,  a  new  collective  agreement  wil be concluded. The process is nothing if not inexorable. At a certain point, if either side decides further discussions are no longer fruitful (i.e., an impasse has been reached), it may request third- party assistance from a Ministry of Labour conciliator. Though this individual has no authority to impose acceptance of any given proposal by either party, she or he can  sometimes facilitate the discussions.

Should  this  assistance not  result  in a  settlement,  either  side  may  request a  “no  board  report”.  This  document places additional pressure on the  parties to settle, in that it starts the clock ticking down to the possibility of a legal strike or lockout. For the union, a strike is the ultimate weapon, and no responsible union ever enters into one lightly. ETFO  bargains  to   reach  settlements, not strikes. In legal terms, by the way, a concerted work-to-rule campaign is also defined as a  strike. A successful strike vote, one which meets the requirements of the LRA, must be taken before any job action can begin.

Once the parties have reached a settlement, it must be ratified by the members of the local. That is the final vote in which you will be asked to participate. And  this  brings  us  back  not  only  to your upcoming vote on the preliminary submission, but to the second process that is in play, namely the political one within ETFO.

The ETFO process

Your presence at the vote to ratify the preliminary submission is part of internal ETFO procedures, and thus is  part of  a  larger process of  democracy and transparency in union affairs. Though the timetable varies from local to local, over the course of this school year your collective  bargaining  committee  will have  been  working  toward  writing  a preliminary  submission  that  reflects the needs and aspirations of members of  the local.  The  submission will also incorporate  the  provincial  bargaining goals developed last spring by the ETFO Standing Committee for Collective Bar- gaining, and which were ratified by the Representative Council in October.

Throughout   the   coming   months, your local will keep you informed about the progress of bargaining. Though this communication  process  varies  from local to local, it typically includes bar- gaining bulletins, meetings, phone trees, and electronic communications. However, a cornerstone of  communication during bargaining is  the principle that information  originates  not  just  from the local or provincial ETFO office, but also from you, the ETFO member. Your active participation is the catalyst that will make a successful round of negotiations  possible. Your input and your feedback ensure that your union is on the path that will best meet your needs as an educator and as an employee.

It is safe to say that this round of bargaining will be even more challenging than the last. As school boards  impose ever  greater  responsibilities  on  staff, and as the work of educating children becomes more complex,  the workload and stress levels of members continue to increase. The daily struggle to do what is right for your students, for your family, and for  yourself remains constant. As we are all too aware, the inequities built into our education funding model show up  in  the  classroom  in  very  tangible ways.

Fortunately, you have the power to do something about all this. Exercising that power begins with your vote.