Teachers are taking turns walking the picket lines.
Premier Doug Ford is talking tough.
A lot is happening in education, just not at the bargaining table. And with only two upcoming negotiating dates for the union representing French teachers — and mediators clearly reluctant to call the three other unions and the provincial government back to the table — what happens now?
“I’m surprised that other than AEFO there have been no talks this year, especially given that there was official, formal notice of strike action, and strikes every day (last week) and now strikes into next week,” said Carol Campbell, an education professor at the University of Toronto.
“I would have hoped that the government and mediator would have moved, certainly by (last) weekend, to try and avert this,” said Campbell, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Education contracts expired at the end of last August, and since then the government has reached two deals, with support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and a smaller education worker union.
But none with teachers, who say they are fighting to keep the quality of education as the Ford government ushers in controversial changes such as larger class sizes and mandatory online learning. The government is also holding the line at a one per cent salary increase, with the unions seeking cost-of-living, or two per cent.
The government says it has backed down on class sizes — going from an average of 22 to 25 in high school instead of 28 — and e-learning, from none to two such courses instead of the original plan for four.
Neither of those initiatives is popular with the public, school boards’ associations or student groups, which have all urged the government to retain the 22 class average and keep online credits voluntary.
But Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has moved enough already, and now it’s time for the unions to make concessions.
The unions, he said, “also have a role to play here and an obligation … to demonstrate some reasonableness to end this impasse.”
He said he has made it “clear that I am open to innovative ways … to deliver a deal that works for all the parties” and recognizes the province’s fiscal restraints. “I think there can be a win-win-win outcome. So we are going to continue to do that, but I’m urging the unions now to do their part.”
Campbell, however, said “these are items that should have been bargained,” and she now hopes the mediator “manages to bring the sides together, that there is some movement, that there is some willingness to talk — even if the sides are far apart.”
While no experts were prepared to predict all-out strikes, they do expect that the current unrest will drag on.
But for both sides, there are risks with the current standoff and the daily, one-day walkouts and work-to-rule by teachers. The unions are ever mindful of public opinion — which according to their continuous internal polling is still on their side — as well the impact of their ongoing job actions.
“Both sides have to be ready to make a deal, and it doesn’t strike me that we are there yet,” said Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies professor at McMaster University.
There will be some movement, he added, but first somebody has to feel uncomfortable.
Ultimately, he added, “it will be public pressure — who is going to feel the pressure the most. Is it the government, who has the ultimate responsibility for keeping the schools open? But teachers have a commitment to students” and also must bear the financial cost of striking.
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He said the rotating strikes are “an interesting strategy, and are certainly increasing pressure on the government to make a deal. But the question is, will this be enough?”
Lewchuk said the situation is different than in the recent past because all teacher unions “are on the same page here … It’s clear that the government has cast this as an issue of pay, but for the teachers it seems there are deeper issues here.”
The risks of ongoing labour disruption could potentially see parents turn on teachers, he said, “but there’s also the real risk for the government that if this issue really continues to focus on changes in the education system, they could suffer further declines in their popularity.”
However, he added, “both sides have to get this right. Education is not something to be messing around with. And it’s not clear to me that education is a place to economize.”
Rémi Sabourin, president of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens — whose members are upping their work-to-rule this week — said he was disappointed the “government and employer could not get us (negotiating) dates” the week of Jan. 20 even though it is the only teacher union currently in talks.
“I am hoping that this will be the time and we will come to an agreement, but at this point I’m not too sure,” given the government’s insistence on changes that will erode the education system, he said.
On Friday, Premier Doug Ford said he supports teachers, but that he’s running out of patience with union leaders.
He said the province is treating educators fairly, noting they are among the top-paid in the country.
“We’re going to get a deal done, we’re going get a deal and we’re going to keep the pressure on,” he said. “But we aren’t budging for the one per cent and hopefully they are going to come to their senses — the union, not the teachers, the union.”
Rob Kristofferson, a labour professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said teachers “quite rightly want to hold the line” on class-size averages, and “when it comes to online learning, educators universally recognize that it is a lower quality type of education than face-to-face and in-class.”
He said the government may argue it has changed its position, but it has really just “scaled back from totally unreasonable, to unreasonable.”