Amid escalating job actions by Ontario's four major teachers unions, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce insists compensation continues to divide the provincial government and unions involved in contract negotiations.
Lecce joined The Open Line on 560 CFOS via phone Wednesday morning and addressed the labour disputes that have impacted Ontario's publicly funded schools since teachers' unions began job actions in November 2019, from work-to-rule campaigns to increasingly frequent rotating strikes.
"The leadership of (the) unions have really, I think made the case for priorities they will need," Lecce said on The Open Line. "They're also politicians too. And increasingly the discussion points that are really dividing the parties is around compensation, which for teacher union leaders has been a top of mind priority, literally for a generation."
Lecce said the government is offering an increase that amounts to $750-million more spending on compensation for teachers in the province. He called it a "fair" offer from the government.
"What is unfair, is that they're asking me to go back to a low income senior or a fixed income pensioner, or parents in the province, and say essentially, 'pay higher taxes to offset higher wage and benefits,'" explained Lecce. "I just think, as a Progressive Conservative, that's not fair."
"People are working harder than ever. The cost of living is rising," continued Lecce. " ... The fact is, we have to appreciate the personal economic side of this. This has a real human impact when teachers' unions strike. And they do every so often. And in this case it's every few days."
Lecce conceded the negotiations are not only about compensation, but added: "for crying out loud, they're overwhelmingly about that."
Teachers unions have said in the past they are seeking inflation level wage increases. The Ford government has maintained it will not give salary increases larger than one per cent, in accordance with legislation it passed to cap public sector pay rates at that amount annually for three years.
All of Ontario's teachers unions have launched a court challenge against Bill 124, the province's wage cap legislation.
The president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario Sam Hammond claimed in a statement put out earlier this week, compensation was not even discussed in three days of talks between the union and province last week.
The province held talks with ETFO over three days Jan. 29-31. On Monday, it held negotiations with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. Lecce said talks are planned this week with AEFO, the French teachers' union.
Public elementary schools in the Bluewater District Board will close for a second time this week, tomorrow, due an ETFO withdrawal of services.
Public high school, english catholic and french catholic teachers are also engaged in various job actions amid contract talks with the Ford government.
The Minister of Education said he is "prepared to reduce classroom size and put more money on the front lines" as long as no additional dollars are being put towards compensation.
"The data I think is important in this story," Lecce said. "For example, since 2003 we have 10 per cent more teachers in the province and less than one per cent more students. And we're spending about 80 cents of the dollar in education on compensation."
"I think it's high time that the Government of Ontario stands up for the taxpayers of this province," continued Lecce. "And (ask): 'where are our priorities?'"
Lecce said the provincial government has told the mediator assisting with contract talks it stands ready to negotiate with all of the unions.