TORONTO - Students across Ontario face more uncertainty when they head back to class next week, after the province's cash-strapped Liberals outraged unions by forcing two-year contracts on 126,000 public school teachers and education workers.
But Education Minister Laurel Broten said she will soon repeal the same controversial anti-strike law that gave her government the power to impose the collective agreements, which cuts benefits and freezes wages of most teachers.
Union leaders whose members have staged one-day strikes and cut out extracurricular activities in protest of the law, wouldn't say exactly what action they'd take in the weeks ahead. But they warned that it won't be "business as usual."
Using "unprecedented, autocratic" legislation to dictate contracts, then promising to repeal the anti-democratic law is a "disgraceful misuse of government power," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Labour groups across Canada are disturbed by what's unfolding in Ontario, said Hammond, whose union is the largest teacher's federation in the country.
"They are all worried about what's happening and will be even more so concerned with what's happened today," he said.
"Every working person in this province should be alarmed by the steps taken by this minister of education today."
Broten blamed the escalating labour dispute on the teachers' unions, saying their leaders wouldn't engage in meaningful contract talks. ETFO left the provincial negotiating table after less than an hour and never returned, she said.
The Liberals had no option but to impose the contracts after ETFO and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation of Ontario failed to reach local agreements with school boards by the Dec. 31 deadline, she said.
But the legislation — which has become a "lightning rod" — will be history once all the contracts are in place, Broten said.
"It has achieved what it was put in place to do," she added.
However, the decision to repeal the legislation has "no impact" on the constitutional challenge launched by unions and the government will continue to defend the law in court, she said.
Union leaders, however, vowed to continue their fight.
"You cannot legislate goodwill and you cannot impose goodwill upon my members," Hammond said.
"You will not erase the stain of Bill 115 by simply repealing it after it's been used."
Both ETFO and OSSTF say their members have overwhelmingly voted in favour of political protests if the government forced new contracts on them. The unions say they plan to meet with their leaders next week to discuss their next steps.
The protests could include walkouts. The unions have said that teachers are also under no obligation to resume voluntary extracurricular activities, even if they're no longer in a legal strike position.
"Collective agreements are in place and it is my hope that if we remove this impediment, as established by others, that we will see extracurricular activities return to the schools," Broten said.
But any strike action will be illegal until the new contracts expire Aug. 31, 2014, she said.
The Liberals have argued that they can't afford pay hikes for teachers because they need the money to keep classes small and roll out all-day kindergarten, while also battling a $14.4-billion deficit.
They point to deals they reached with Catholic and francophone teachers over the summer as proof that they've negotiated agreements that work for both sides.
The province also brokered a deal just before the Dec. 31 deadline with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 55,000 workers, including educational assistants, early childhood educators, instructors, custodians, librarians and secretaries.
But the labour fight has taken a political toll on the minority Liberals and self-described "education premier" Dalton McGuinty, who plans to leave the top job once a new leader is chosen at the end of January — when the contentious bill is also expected to be gone.
Rattled by the unions' declaration of war after the bill was passed, the Liberals tried to mend fences with the very groups whose financial and organizational support helped get them re-elected over the past nine years. McGuinty even prorogued the legislature Oct. 15 to buy more time for his party to repair the relationship.
Broten denied Thursday that removing the law is a cynical ploy to win back the support of teachers before the next election. But the opposition parties say they're not so sure.
The minister is admitting the law is flawed while in the same breath saying she'll still use it to force contracts on teachers, said New Democrat Cheri DiNovo.
"This has nothing to do with the well-being of students and has everything to do with the well-being of the Liberal party," she added.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, whose party supported the contentious law, said the Liberals have no one but themselves to blame for the chaos in Ontario schools.
"I worry that the government now is saying they're going to throw out the bill, their first bill that actually had a wage freeze in it, they're now going to toss it overboard," he said.
"That tells me that they want to put the union bosses back in charge of running the province."