For the first time in more than two decades, all of the province’s teacher unions are involved in job action — ranging from work-to-rule to rotating one-day strikes.
“This is extremely unusual and I don’t remember another time since 1997 that there has been an occurrence like this,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the 60,000-member Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
Bischof recalled that in 1997, members of the then-five teacher unions held a political protest, staying off the job for two weeks — despite the fact they were not in a legal strike position — after the Conservative government under Mike Harris made major changes in education, including removing principals and vice-principals from unions and taking taxing powers away from school boards.
“All five affiliates were out for two weeks,” Bischof added.
His members — who include teachers as well as support and professional staff — will be off the job in more than 20 boards on Wednesday, the union’s fifth day-long job action.
While Education Minister Stephen Lecce “tries to point fingers at everybody but his own government” Bischof said given there have been 22 years of no province-wide action among the now four teacher unions “that tells us a common denominator in this unrest is this government’s policies.”
Lecce said Thursday that labour unrest in education happens every few years, and again urged the unions to stop escalating job action and keep kids in class.
The only teacher union with bargaining dates scheduled is the AEFO, which represents 12,000 teachers and school staff in the province’s French language boards. That union will begin a largely administrative work-to-rule on Thursday, though talks continue this week. The other three teacher unions are also engaging in work-to-rules.
“At the bargaining table, student learning is a crucial issue for which Franco-Ontarian teachers are willing to strike,” said Rémi Sabourin, president of AEFO (Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens).
The teacher unions oppose larger class sizes — and the loss of thousands of teaching positions — as well as two mandatory online courses for teens. The government has also passed legislation limiting wage increases to one per cent a year.
Ontario’s English Catholic elementary and secondary teachers will hold a province-wide strike next Tuesday — so as not to interfere with upcoming high school exams — and the province’s public elementary teachers will begin rotating strikes next week if no deal is reached, announcing the impacted boards as early as Wednesday.
“It is incredible that as of (Tuesday), no dates for contract talks have been scheduled by Minister Lecce with ETFO,” said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
“Should no dates be set, it will be crystal clear that this government’s only mandate is to continue with its damaging cuts to public education.”
NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said of the four unions engaging in job action: “The minister tries to spin this as something we see every few years, but this is historic.”
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said trustees would like to be back at the table “negotiating to come to an agreement.”
Liberal MPP and former education minister Mitzie Hunter said “the state of negotiations with our education unions has completely collapsed and these unions see no value in remaining at the table with a government that refuses to show up and bargain in good faith.”
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A settlement can “only happen if both sides are serious about getting a deal,” said Hunter. “Otherwise there is no point in sitting down. Where this is all leading, is it to a full blown strike and what is the government doing to avoid that?”
Lecce said Monday that the unions need to be reasonable at the bargaining table, adding “they have made no movement at all on any of their top matters. They have only made ultimatums on the government. That is not really constructive.”