Waiting for a walkout: The end of McGuinty?

By Doug Nesbitt and Andrew Stevens

[Editors note: a couple of passages have been edited for clarification. Oct.8 2012]

For the first time since the late 1990s, a provincial labour-related education bill has angered a substantial number of Ontarians, from students to parents and, of course, teachers. Bill 115, with the Orwellian title of “Putting Students First Act”, passed into law on September 11. To no surprise, the law received unanimous support from the opposition Tories.

The bill effectively eliminates collective bargaining rights for Ontario’s 180,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, specialized teachers and support staff. It imposes a two-year wage freeze, a 97-day delay on pay increments, three unpaid Professional Activity days, a halving of annual sick days to ten, and an end to the banking of unused sick days throughout a teacher’s career.

While the bill does not prevent strike votes from taking place, it provides the provincial cabinet the power to intervene to stop strikes from happening, even pre-emptively, without legislative approval. More draconian still, the new law revokes the ability of local bargaining units from freely negotiating contracts with their respective school boards. Even the school board associations, which function as managers in the education system, opposed the restrictions.[1]

McGuinty’s austerity agenda
McGuinty was re-elected in October 2011 with a minority government by a disillusioned electorate and record low voter turnout (49.2 percent). Since then, he has sought to implement a series of austerity measures to balance the provincial budget, which is of genuine economic importance. McGuinty’s confrontation with the teachers marks a departure from the strategy that immediately followed the release of the Drummond Report, a document authored by a former TD economist that offered market-driven prescriptions on how to rationalize the provision of public services. The government’s strategy of cutting the deficit has developed from one designed around privatization and subcontracting, to a call for “voluntary” wage freezes. Historically, the auspices of voluntarism have been followed by threats of force vis-à-vis back-to-work and wage freeze legislation. The provincial Liberals, it seems, have not deviated from this time-honoured trend.

While the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation and Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario refused to negotiate with McGuinty, the leaders of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association did agree to a concession-based Memorandum of Understanding. Signed in early July, McGuinty has used the MOU as a blueprint for the concessions imposed on the other teachers unions through Bill 115. There should be no mincing of words: the MOU signed by the OECTA leadership sold out all Ontario teachers, including the union’s own membership. McGuinty’s drive for a wage freeze, the clawing back of collective bargaining rights, and the concentration of power into cabinet offices may soon extend further to nearly half a million public sector workers.[2]

While the OSSTF, ETFO and CUPE leaders publicly rebuked the OECTA deal, little was said about the undemocratic manner through which the deal was struck. Not only were local OECTA bargaining units not consulted by the leadership engaged in direct negotiations with the government, but the MOU was never subjected to a vote by the union’s 34,000 members. At the time, at least one local OECTA bargaining unit, composed of teachers in Hamilton, publicly expressed their disappointment with the lack of local consultation.

Following the MOU’s signing, conflict between teachers and the government escalated through to September. The month opened with organized labour, spearheaded by teachers, helping deliver a stunning NDP by-election victory in Kitchener-Waterloo, thus denying McGuinty his much-needed majority government. Bill 115 was passed days later.

Resisting Bill 115
Since the passage of Bill 115, two forms of protest have emerged, the first being teacher and union-led action. For example, members of the OSSTF and ETFO have engaged in work-to-rule action, strike votes, and public demonstrations. The unions have also launched court challenges against the bills. The second form of protest has been a series of student walkouts against Bill 115.

In the past couple of weeks, over thirty Ontario high schools involving thousands of students have protested against the government’s legislation.[3] The wave of walkouts may have hit a peak in the last week of September during OSSTF and ETFO strike votes, but further student-led actions are being planned in cafeterias, hallways and through social media. Even elementary school students are mobilizing, with grade eight students at one Toronto public school engaging in a two-day walkout.[4]

The student walkouts represent a new degree of politicization amongst young people in Ontario. It goes without saying that the Quebec student strike is the most incredible and highly effective expression of this phenomenon. But it’s worth noting that in early March, thousands of high school students in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia walked out against the provincial government’s attack on teachers only days before they went on strike. This degree of student support for teachers and against government should not be ignored. Nor should their example.

Labour has launched a number of court challenges against Bill 115, which is a necessary part of a broader political strategy. But, the legal route is lengthy and expensive. Nor does a court challenge function as a mobilizing tool for union membership as it channels resistance towards the courts and away from rank-and-file mobilization. And in reality, legal victories against such forms of legislation don’t prevent their reintroduction, as evidenced by the limits placed on the right of agricultural workers to engage in a binding collective bargaining process by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2011 Fraser decision.

Despite the success of work-to-rule action used by some of Ontario’s teachers, their efforts have been disorganized and uneven. Both the OSSTF and ETFO have put the power to decide on work-to-rule action into the hands of schools and individual teachers, with the union leadership fearing massive fines and government reprisals if the Ontario Labour Relations Board and the courts rule the tactics as illegal. So far the unions have only “reminded” teachers that volunteer labour is not covered under existing collective agreements. This has undermined the effectiveness of work-to-rule and maintains the possibility of creating rifts within the membership.

Another critical mistake has been made by some teachers and schools to refuse to mentor teacher candidates who are in the process of completing their required practicums. This application of work-to-rule is confusing and demoralizing for teacher candidates who are the new generation of union members and, by most accounts, are equally opposed to Bill 115.[5] To the point, a work-to-rule campaign that is not applied uniformly across Ontario will ultimately fail in challenging Bill 115 and in garnering public support. As Ottawa Citizen columnist, Kelly Egan, put it in a tough but sympathetic article, “…we’re left with the impression the union doesn’t really know what it’s doing. If this bill is so draconian that it needs to be fought tooth-and-nail, then do so. Call on all teachers to stop volunteering for extra-curriculars for two years. Period. Make a statement. Pick a hill to die on, live with the consequences.”[6] Indeed, the strike votes held in September suggest that the unions possess a strong mandate for escalating labour action. Nearly all OSSTF and ETFO bargaining units won a strike mandate of over 90 percent![7]

Problems and Prospects
With OSSTF and ETFO taking strike votes, fissures have emerged within the OECTA between the central union executive and the district-level leadership who are closer to the rank-and-file. OECTA bargaining units in Sudbury, Halton and Toronto are now filing complaints with the union based on the lack of local consultation. The teachers also protested the absence of ratification votes at the unit level.[8] There is little reason to believe that the OECTA members are happy with the MOU or the appeasement strategy adopted by the union leadership. Conflicts between varying levels of the union bureaucracy and the membership will continue to affect how the confrontation plays out.

Another major dimension of the conflict is the electoral front. The Liberal minority government is unpopular. Its support has collapsed from 37.6 percent in October of 2011, to around 20 percent. Contrast this to the growing popularity of the NDP, which has seen its ranking in the polls rise from 22.7 percent during the election to around 30 percent in recent surveys. Meanwhile, the Tories remain committed to their anti-union ideology by taking aim at the basic rights enjoyed by trade unions and Ontario’s workers, namely the automatic dues check-off protocol known as the Rand Formula. It is likely that the NDP will secure nearly the entire labour vote, while the Progressive Conservatives continue to feed off of the public’s fear of deficit spending and resentment towards public sector wages – two sentiments that they, and their allies in the business lobby community, have helped to generate.

The Liberal’s austerity budget and attacks on teachers might finally signal an end to the party’s strategic alliance with what is left of the pro-labour and pro-welfare state vote. During the 1999 provincial election, McGuinty was able to secure the support of teachers unions, largely because of his commitment to increased education spending. At the time, almost the entire union movement had thrown its weight behind the party most likely to defeat the Tories and end the legacy of Mike Harris’s poisonous “Common Sense” revolution. This meant abandoning the NDP, in part due to the lingering disillusionment workers and their unions still felt about the premiership of Bob Rae. It was, after all, the same year that the Canadian Autoworkers first deployed strategic voting in support of the Liberals, a practice they have since adopted in federal politics.

The question for organized labour is how best to achieve its goals. If the repeal of Bill 115, an end to austerity budgets and social program cuts are the major grievances of unions in Ontario, then these demands ought to frame the electoral strategy of organized labour in the long term, and opposition to the governing Liberals now.[9] Will such demands be placed on the NDP as a condition of electoral support? Would escalating labour disruption be pursued as both a means to stop McGuinty and to reach an agreement with the NDP for labour’s support? To what extent will public sector unions, including those representing teachers, be willing to engage in budget discussions that involve reducing the deficit and transforming the province’s economy?

Strike dates have yet to be set as school boards continue negotiating with local OSSTF and ETFO bargaining teams. Whether or not these strike vote results are symbolic gestures against McGuinty, or an actual mandate for labour action, are unknown. There’s a good chance most teachers are asking themselves the same question.

[1] http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/1022447/legislation-does-not-put-students-first
[2] http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1263939–walkom-ontario-restraint-bill-much-more-than-two-year-wage-freeze
[3] Mick Sweetman at Rabble.ca has been diligently documenting these walkouts. http://rabble.ca/news/2012/09/why-ontarios-high-school-student-walkouts-give-me-hope
[4] http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/education/article/1265862–students-lengthen-walkout-to-two-days
[5] This is based on personal knowledge of one teachers college which sends teacher candidates to both public and Catholic school boards spanning a number of towns, cities and districts.
[7] Strike votes for OSSTF can be found at http://osstf.on.ca and some ETFO strike votes can be found on the Twitter account @ETFOnews.
[8] http://www.thesudburystar.com/2012/09/26/teachers-irked-with-union; http://www.thesudburystar.com/2012/09/25/sudbury-catholic-teachers-unhappy-with-union
[9] The British left and labour movement have a long tradition of writing charters –a list of demands upon which to organize and guide a political, labour or social movement. Perhaps it’s time for a charter of the labour movement – a set of goals which can be posed as demands to employers, government and parties, such as the NDP.

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10 thoughts on “Waiting for a walkout: The end of McGuinty?

  1. Mr. Nesbitt and Dr. Stevens have provided an interesting analysis of the current labour situation vis-a-vis teachers in Ontario.

    That said, it is also obvious that they are not closely familiar with the actions of teachers or with the messaging of the union leadership and have gathered much of their information from the news.

    While it is true that the OSSTF and ETFO had problems developing a consistent public face in September (ETFO jumped the gun and OSSTF didn’t correct for it) OSSTF, at least, now has its proverbial act together.

    Secondary teachers are NOT working to rule, they have NOT been given a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” directive to suspend extra-curriculars nor have OSSTF members been given any directive even suggesting that teacher candidates should not be mentored.

    Part of the problem is that the news media treats “teachers” as a unified whole, with the exception of the Catholic/OECTA union*. The unions were also quite confused in their approach to getting their message out. ETFO (elementary) threw all caution to the wind while OSSTF (secondary) wasn’t consistent in its message to the news media.

    The unions (especially OSSTF) have only themselves to blame for the incorrect perceptions left with the public (including the authors of the article to which I am responding). OSSTF is pursuing a very considered strategy–it was not yet time to engage in a strike, neither legally nor morally.

    Before a strike or even so-called work-to-rule (though, now courts are inclined to treat work-to-rule as a strike) is considered the union has to make an honest effort to negotiate a contract. There are also a number of legal steps that MUST be taken before a union is in the position where they can engage in work action. If they fail to make that effort their legal challenges will be weakened and they will not be in a legal strike position.

    There will undoubtedly come a time when strikes will happen in Ontario–I have no doubt about that. But, the authors of this article were disappointed that the OSSTF didn’t jump the gun the way ETFO did (I cannot speak to ETFO’s current strategy). OSSTF, though they messed up initially in their messaging, now at least know what they’re doing.

    *While hanging out their membership to dry, OECTA tried to cut a back-room deal to save the Catholic school system. In the end, they signed the Catholic system’s death warrant since the unwritten truce and cooperation between the Public and the Catholic unions is now over (the Public unions have now gone on record favoring the merger of the systems). It now will only be a matter of time before people clue in that money can be saved and that a massive social injustice on the order of a few billions of dollars per year can be ended–the systemic discrimination against non-Catholics and severe over-representation (at least DOUBLE, if not more) of practicing Catholics in publicly funded teaching positions. While practicing Catholics can be expected to make up less than 25% of the population they can reasonably be expected to make up close to 50% of teachers because of how the Catholic boards hire only Catholics as teachers (while employing 34% of Ontario’s teaching force).

    1. PS Re: OECTA hanging its membership out to dry.

      By cutting this deal early to save the Catholic school boards OECTA hung its membership out to dry. Many, if not most of their members would be well served by a merger with school boards.

      A merger would free up a few hundred of millions, if not billions of dollars in public education spending as duplicate schools could be closed and wasteful practices like bussing students in Toronto and other urban areas could be ended (the Toronto Catholic board busses its students simply to keep enrollment numbers up… otherwise parents would send their kids to the closest publicly funded PUBLIC and UNIVERSALLY accessible school).

      Since boards have a legal requirement to maintain a certain student-to-teacher ratio a merger wouldn’t result in a noticeable loss of teacher positions (that couldn’t be handled through normal retirements).

      Increased inefficiencies would reduce the pressure on teachers and reduce the likelihood of serious damage being done to their incomes. It would also dramatically increase opportunities for OECTA members and would take a massive bite out of the nepotism that is rampant in the Catholic system (I’ve seen it first hand in the Toronto board).

    2. The article’s information is also drawn from discussions with OSSTF and ETFO members as well as teacher candidates. Not only are your assumptions wrong about how we’ve conducted our research, but your unsubstantiated claims are not welcome either.

      Regarding work-to-rule, I don’t think you’ve bothered to read what we’ve said. We state clearly that there has been no formal directive from the OSSTF and ETFO leadership to conduct work-to-rule, precisely because of the legal consequences. However, members in both unions are conducting work-to-rule actions which are being tacitly condoned by the leadership of both unions. These members are not being disciplined or told to stop by their union leaders.

      Furthemore, we do not claim that OSSTF has directed teacher candidates not to be mentored. OSSTF has not issued such a directive, but these problems are still happening because of the manner in which work-to-rule is being conducted.

      FYI: I’ve been informed that the Ontario Teachers’ Federation has issued a directive against work-to-rule which prevents teacher candidates from being mentored. I have yet to find any evidence of this and once found, this post will be updated accordingly.

      – Doug Nesbitt

  2. Dear Mr. Nesbitt:

    Re: unsubstantiated claims … not welcome

    I presume that you ARE looking for comment on your work or else you wouldn’t be posting it on-line, nor would you be soliciting comments.

    As for my unsubstantiated claims–indeed, I do not personally know how you conducted yourself. What I DO know is what I read and the impression it left with me and thus what I must infer from your writings.

    Ok, enough ad hominem tit-for-tat.

    As an OSSTF member I can indeed CONFIRM that OSSTF provincial indicated that the mentoring of TCs will NOT be the focus of any strike actions. And, AFAIK the use of the term ‘work to rule’ is deprecated and such actions are typically described as ‘strike’ (since legally they are becoming more difficult to distinguish).

    As for your use of work-to-rule, I did read it the first time and re-read it again. To quote the relevant sentence (which lead to my interpretation of your own research and sets the tone of your entire discussion of work-to-rule):

    “Despite the success of work-to-rule action used by some of Ontario’s teachers”

    There have been no such actions and you imply that in 2012 there have been such actions! You also imply they are successful–how, pray tell? The rest of your paragraph is confused on the matter, and, implies (incorrectly) that they HAVE occurred. The caveat at the end does little to rectify that impression.

    As you seem to know most (if not all) BUs have now taken strike votes or are in the position of asking for ‘no board reports’. Once these steps have taken additional action will likely be forthcoming.

    As for picking a hill and dying on it–that may be an action that is premature until we have a better sense of what the constitutional landscape is vis-a-vis collective bargaining rights.

    It’s all good and well to want job action, but, just like war, those who will suffer under job action will be the same ones who will not engage it lightly on the behest of arm chair quarterbacks.

    PS You might be interested to know that some OECTA BUs have taken strike votes and received strong strike mandates.

  3. PS the concerted withdrawal of extracurriculars, for example is most likely considered a strike action.

    Unions would be foolish to place themselves in an illegal strike situation (which is what ‘work-to-rule’ would be without a strike vote and a ‘no board report’) when legal means are still open to them.

    Only after all legal and conventional avenues have been exhausted does it become time to challenge bad law.

    Don’t worry your rabble-rousing heart, I’m sure that time will come. But, until then let the lawyers push unconstitutional or bad laws to their breaking point.

  4. Hi Eric,

    I will start by thanking you for reading through our article and giving consideration to our arguments. As Doug clarified, the work is principally an analysis of strategies, correspondence, news, and first hand accounts offered to us by union members and teacher candidates. I hope you will provide us with additional information on what inaccuracies you have spotted in our article. This might help us strengthen our review and the analysis.

    To your point on “work to rule”, extra-curricular activities are not, to our knowledge, mandated by the collective agreement/contracts that cover Ontario public school teachers. “Work to rule” is an industrial action whereby employees cease to perform any duties that they are not contractually obligated to fulfill. Extra-curricular athletic programs are one such example. (This happens throughout the education system. As an Early Childhood Education in Ontario, my wife was always working on projects outside of her paid hours of employment.) As a tactic, it shows the employer and the general public how much work teachers put into education above and beyond that which is offered in the classroom, and that which is paid for. We concluded that “work to rule” does, in fact, characterize the labour actions carried out by some teachers in particular units. One perspective on the tactic can be seen here (http://www.ottawasun.com/2012/09/10/work-to-rule-bad-news-for-students-looking-to-compete). “Work to rule” is not defined by the legality of any particular action, nor formal support offered by the trade union leadership, but by the nature of the labour action as industrial action in a strict sense of the word.

    I for one am interested in your stance on our analysis of the political strategy that has been adopted by the OSSTF and other teachers unions. This is the heart of our piece. Have we mischaracterized the support unions have given to McGuinty’s Liberals in the last three provincial elections? Is there no reason to question this political commitment considering the ramifications of Bill 115? Is it not time to think about ending the strategic voting campaign, as we describe, in favour of a coherent political electoral strategy that involves rank-and-file mobilization (vis-à-vis strike action, demonstrations, work-to-rule, etc.) and a reform platform within the NDP?

    Finally, neither of us prescribe a commitment to strike activity. Our reading of the current circumstance, however, insists that strike action, along with other types of labour action, needs to be considered as part of a broader political campaign. We have come to this conclusion based on our analysis of media coverage and facts publicized by the unions themselves. This does not mean that we fail to understand the seriousness of a strike, far from it. Nor are we the “arm chair quarterbacks” pushing for job action regardless of consequence, as you say. Doug and I are both members of public sector (education) unions and understand that what happens with the teachers could, and likely will, have ripple effects for other public sector employees in Ontario. If you consider the legislation from a Charter/Constitutional perspective, it is fair to say that Bill 115 has national significance. This is why we insist that now is the time for a coordinated political campaign that involves action on an electoral and trade union front.

    We are interested in your thoughts on this aspect of the article and welcome any insights, clarifications, or corrections you think need to be made.

    In Solidarity,


  5. Dear Andrew, I would dearly love to engage your article properly but I am pressed for time (my personal life is due to change any day now).

    Your general analysis of the overall and historical political situation in Ontario feels right. However, I do take issue with your analysis of the current Sep/Oct 2012 situation vis-a-vis teachers.

    My initial (and subsequent) reading of your piece left me with the impression that your analysis was coloured by sporadic and incomplete news reports rather than the totality of the actions of teachers and their union(s). In all fairness to the media, they have rightly reported what they saw, though, they did report the Hudak-McGuinty government news releases without doing their due diligence. In all fairness to you, you’re limited in that this isn’t your own personal career on the line and you aren’t privy to the information that teachers who are members of the affected unions are.

    Yes, initially in September some of what you described may have occurred, but, I do also suspect that you’ll see that those initial ‘work-to-rule’ situations, as you call them, have been rescinded. Individual teachers may still be refusing to volunteer but most have returned, RIGHTLY SO.

    IMNSHO it was neither the right time, nor the right place to withdraw voluntary activities. The boards know teachers are unhappy–they’re no happier with the current state of affairs than the teachers since the Memorandum of Understanding introduces many new costs to the boards and removes from them the ability to negotiate their own operating conditions (for e.g., the new sick leave provisions will likely end up costing boards substantially more than the sick bank that these provisions are replacing).

    As for ‘work-to-rule’: you may want to familiarize yourself with the current legal status of work-to-rule.

    What you describe as work-to-rule is viewed as ‘job action’ by the courts which translates to strike action. Even though many tasks are not explicitly part of a collective agreement they are implicit. For example, not taking attendance was part of a previous work-to-rule campaign. Under today’s courts that campaign would likely be interpreted as a strike action. Extra-curriculars* are also thought to fall under the same interpretation–even though they are voluntary, if there is a union directive or collective decision to withdraw them it may be deemed a strike action by the courts.

    My understanding is that strike action will likely take the form of administrative work-to-rule and possibly even a withdrawal of ECs. Time will tell what strategies are adopted. The public is divided in their support for teachers. Many in the public think the Hudak-McGuinty government has been profoundly unfair and bully-like in the way they’ve approached labour relations with teachers, but, a sizeable chunk also think teachers have it too good and need to be taught a lesson in humility.

    Bill 115 is interesting law. Its failure or success will rest on how well the lawyers paid attention to the recent decisions by the Superior Courts and the Supreme Court. My gut tells me they probably did try to craft constitutional legislation but, that in the haste to win the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election from the Tories, the Liberals probably made mistakes.

    In the end, yes, a political strategy must be engaged. Whether the NDP is the platform to bring that about, I do not know. But, we’ve seen the political winds shift towards a concerted attack on labour, whether organized or not. It’s going to get a LOT worse because I suspect the global recession will finally start to hit Canada and once governments get wind of the fear in the populace they’ll go after the public sector with a vengeance.

    *Amusingly enough the MAJORITY of extra-curriculars are NOT coaching/sports yet the media and the anti-teacher QBs invariably only views EC as sports. Many (Toronto) Sun(shine) quarterbacks seem to think that only a handful of teachers run all the ECs since they think of only sports, which has a whiff of truth to it. Phys ed teachers do often run multiple teams but that’s part of the (unwritten) expectation of the job–their prep load and especially marking loads are substantially less than many other disciplines, so, in exchange for receiving the same salary as other teachers, they are expected to make up for the reduced prep load with extra-curriculars.

  6. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your response. I’m going to dig into this issue of work-to-rule a bit more, especially considering your point about how courts are ruling on this type of industrial action. I know that in the case of the Air Canada pilots, their “sick-in” tactic was ruled by the CLRB as an illegal work stoppage. But, in the case of teachers, how does the court force employees to perform duties that are not included in their contracts?

    In Sol,


  7. Hi Andrew,

    The thinking on the matter is that extracurriculars are an unwritten part of teaching.

    Yes, they aren’t in the contract, and doing them is entirely voluntary. But, if there is an organized effort (note I don’t qualify it ‘by the union’) to stop doing them or to not start them that is a different story. At that point it becomes a work stoppage and is likely to be deemed a strike.

    As it stands, the strike action that will be taken will likely take the form of administrative ‘work-to-rule’ (to use phrase that is ill-defined ATM) where attendance will not be taken and extracurriculars will be withdrawn.

    Who knows?! The legal mess and morass the province has created is a problem both in the short term and the long term.

    In the short term they’ve demoralized their teaching force (never a good thing for Ontario’s future ten years down the road). In the long term, if the province loses in the courts the province is on the hook for hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in back pay.

    If the province wins then we’re in for violent protests in a few years. If the province’s tactics hold up against constitutional scrutiny this gov’t or its successor (whether NDP or Tory) will assuredly use them again.

    If that type of one-sided arbitrary imposition of working conditions continues for a contract or two people (teachers and other public servants) will eventually be left with nothing to lose–and, when someone has little to lose they will strike out with everything they’ve got.

    The Harris years will look like a walk in the park by comparison, because, for all Harris’ faults, his gov’t was never foolish enough to completely bypass the collective bargaining process.

    That gov’t squandered billions on wealth transfers to the wealthiest members of society and those wealth transfers were done on the backs of the middle class–the public servants of Ontario. But, in all of that, collective agreements were negotiated and ratified and there were relatively few strikes. The only serious strikes under Harris’ tenure were by teachers and those were ultimately part of his gov’ts undoing.

    If Hudak-McGuinty are prepared to arbitrarily and maliciously pursue public servants for electoral gain I suspect things will come to a head in two to three years when the current contracts finish.

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