A labour board hearing into the Ontario government's bid to block elementary teachers from staging a one-day walkout on Friday is expected to go late into Thursday evening.
"This promises to be a lengthy and undoubtedly pleasant evening," said Ontario Labour Relations Board chairman Bernard Fishbein, after ruling that he will not refer the matter to the courts.
Lawyers representing the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario argued at the hearing that the courts were the proper forum to deal with whether the planned walkout constitutes an illegal strike.
But Mr. Fishbein told the hearing he is not prepared to refer the matter to the courts, where he said a hearing would not take place until September at the earliest.
With elementary teachers poised to walk off the job on Friday, lawyers for the education ministry argued that the matter must be dealt with immediately. The government is seeking a cease and desist order.
ETFO lawyer Howard Goldblatt said there are no plans by elementary teachers to hold further days of protest. He said teachers have been embroiled in a fight with outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty's government for the past 10 months, but he suggested relations could improve when a new Liberal leader is chosen later this month.
"We are hoping there will be a fundamental sea change in the way the government addresses the sector," Mr. Goldblatt said.
However, Mr. Fishbein said in his ruling that ETFO's pledge that it won't hold further protests is based on the hope that Mr. McGuinty's successor will review Bill 115, the controversial legislation that bans teachers from striking.
"I have no way of knowing whether that is an overly optimistic assessment or not," Mr. Fishbein said.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is appealing to elementary teachers to resolve their differences with his government outside the classroom and ignore their union leader's calls to stage a one-day protest on Friday.
Elementary teachers will have an opportunity to air their grievances with his government before an "impartial, objective judicial authority," he said, referring to a hearing that took place Thursday afternoon before the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
A separate hearing will take place at a later date for secondary teachers.
"I understand that we have some differences. I respect their right to give expression to those differences," Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Thursday. "Let's leave the students out of it."
Mr. McGuinty also suggested that the militant stance of Ontario Elementary Teachers' Federation President Sam Hammond might not necessarily reflect the views of his members, who want to "give their all" to students.
"I think executives have to be careful that they don't allow a gap to grow between them and their thinking and where teachers are on the front lines," he said. "I think teachers on the front lines want to teach. They want to give their best to students."
Mr. McGuinty spoke to reporters just before heading to China, where he will lead a final trade mission before stepping down later this month, when a new Liberal leader is chosen.
"The teachers have kept my exit interesting," he said. "I'll say that much."
The Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing, requested by the government in a bid to stop elementary teachers from walking off the job, was scheduled for 3 p.m. at the board's Toronto office.
"We will be making the case for a quick decision to give certainty to parents and students," a government spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
But in a sign the dispute is only intensifying, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation sent an e-mail Wednesday night to its 76,000 members saying that they will walk off the job on Jan. 16. A spokeswoman for Minister of Education Laurel Broten said the government plans to bring an application regarding that strike notice to the labour relations board in the coming days.
If the government's application to block job action is approved and teachers still defy the order, shuttering elementary schools for the second time this academic year on Friday, the government can take the matter to court. Teachers could be found in contempt of court, or the union could be fined $25,000 and individual teachers $2,000 – on top of being docked regular wages – for each day of illegal strike action, a government official said.
For Mr. McGuinty, a departing premier who built a reputation as "the education premier," the confrontation with teachers has tarnished his legacy. He warned teachers Wednesday they will be engaging in illegal activity if they participate in the job action, and said he fully expected them to be in the classroom on Friday.
"I know teachers are law abiding. I know they don't want to break the law. I am urging them not to," Mr. McGuinty told reporters at a news conference.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, was defiant. He said there was nothing Mr. McGuinty could do to stop the walkout, which was announced Wednesday, and that he felt confident that the courts would uphold his members' rights to protest. Teachers plan to picket outside schools, board offices and government offices.
Mr. Hammond said teachers' anger at the government has grown since the last round of walkouts in December.
"[Frustration] has increased tenfold since Jan. 3, when the minister took actions to impose contracts and wipe aside years of collective bargaining," he said.
The union has called Friday's walkout a "political protest." Mr. McGuinty said teachers need to understand the distinction between a protest – something that can take place before and after school hours, as well as on weekends and statutory holidays – and an illegal strike, which would keep students out of the classroom for the day.
Teachers are angry with the Liberals for introducing Bill 115, which set a Dec. 31 deadline for bargaining, and enabled the province to impose a contract last week. Elementary and high-school teachers have withdrawn their participation in sports teams and clubs, with union leaders indicating these activities could be withheld until the fall of 2014, the duration of the contract.
The teachers' unions have launched a court challenge of Bill 115, arguing that it infringes on their rights to collective bargaining. But as long as the contract is in place, job action is illegal, government officials say.
The Peel District School Board says that schools may be open Friday, depending on the Labour Review Board's decision. The Toronto District School Board has said that schools will be closed, regardless of the result.
News of school closings sent parents scrambling to make alternative childcare arrangements.
Caledon resident Laura Brady, a mother of two and an e-book developer, said she may have to take her younger son to meetings Friday, armed with an iPod to keep him occupied, if the teachers defy the government. She sympathizes with educators, but is frustrated that the two sides are unable to solve their problems.
"It feels like both the union and the government are playing chicken – that is, behaving like school children," Ms. Brady said. "All of the players here are smart, problem-solvers who are having a moment, a moment that ripples through almost every household in this province. It's frustrating and ridiculous."
Mr. McGuinty said he does not know how quickly the Labour Relations Board can rule on the matter, but he said his officials will stress that the matter is urgent.
Nina Bascia, an expert on teacher labour and a professor at the University of Toronto, said it is unlikely the government will fine or penalize every elementary teacher in the province, especially in the midst of a leadership shakeup. "It's a very strange time. We're between premiers, if not governments."
There are seven contenders for Mr. McGuinty's job, three of them former education ministers. They have hinted at very different strategies for dealing with the teacher dispute.
Sandra Pupatello, perceived as a front-runner in the race to replace Mr. McGuinty as Liberal leader, also weighed into the escalating dispute between the government and teachers. In a statement on Wednesday, Ms. Pupatello said the intended job action is "completely unacceptable" and will make things worse, not better.
"We owe our kids better than this," she said. "It is fundamentally wrong."