The Ontario government told school boards this week that it won't commit to blocking a strike, leaving many nervous that teachers could be on the picket lines before Christmas.
The province held briefings with school boards this week and told them the government would not necessarily move to block strike action before the Dec. 31 deadline set for negotiations, school board officials said.
By Thursday, the results of teacher strike votes had been tallied, and at boards across the province, more than 90 per cent of secondary-school teachers voted in favour of taking strike action.
"The landscape changed this week, and the strike votes took on a whole new meaning," said Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario School Boards' Association. "Suddenly there's a lot of uncertainty."
Just a week ago, the odds of a teachers' strike seemed long. Many teachers and parents believed that the legislation the government passed, which also imposed a two-year wage freeze and cuts to sick days, had taken away teachers' right to strike.
The results of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation's strike votes reflect teachers' frustration at that legislation. The lowest level of support in the GTA was the Toronto teachers, who voted 93.4 per cent in favour of a strike.
Elementary teachers are currently holding similar votes, and the numbers are expected to be much the same. The unions haven't said how they'll harness the high levels of anger amongst their membership, but the presidents of both the elementary and the high school teachers' federations have said they won't go on strike – for now.
"It sets a tone," said Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.
Even without firm work-to-rule directives from their unions, many teachers began pulling back almost all of their volunteer time in September – cancelling sports teams, clubs and parent-teacher nights. Much of teachers' anger is directed at Premier Dalton McGuinty for seeming to deny them collective bargaining rights.
While the ministry of education imposed the terms of the contract, union officials have continued to bargain with their local school boards, but within some very restricted parameters.
"We can bargain, but it's like trying to knit a sweater out of thin air," Mr. Barrett said.
Boards and unions are free to negotiate terms as long as they stick to the fiscal restraints laid out by the province. That's how the English Catholic teachers' union reached a deal with the province in July. It traded two unpaid PD days (amounting to a 1.5 per cent pay cut) for all teachers for the partial preservation of the pay grid for younger teachers.
Teachers have argued that it was the province's decision to restrict their right to strike that pushed them over the edge. But with the Ministry of Education's suggestion that it will not automatically block a strike, that option is back on the table.
"A strike is always the last resort, but our voices aren't being heard, we have no choice," said Tina Khan, who teaches math at a downtown Toronto high school. "[The province] is setting a precedent to take away bargaining rights."
The pressure is mounting to reach a deal. Teachers have been cutting back on more and more extracurricular activities and students have been staging their own counter-protests, walking out of school and in one case, eating popsicles until they vomited to show their displeasure at being pawns in the dispute.
Grade 12 students are especially worried about what they'll be able to list as extracurriculars in their university and scholarship applications, some of which are due as early as December.
Kim Southern-Paulsen's oldest son is in Grade 12 at the SATEC program at W. A. Porter Collegiate and though his football practices are still happening, she is worried about how the season will progress without many schools to compete against.
"My oldest son likes school, but what drives him at school is the extracurriculars, it's not the homework or the academics," she said.
Her youngest son has been diagnosed with autism and is in Grade 8 at Regent Heights Public School. She worries whether teachers will be able to find the motivation to give him all the extra support he needs, and whether their frustration with the government will be left to fester for the rest of the school year or bubble over in a full-on strike.
"I don't know how many parents appreciate that it could be an awful year ahead," she said. "I'm very concerned."