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Ontario teachers set to strike, closing many elementary schools

Sam Hammond, President of ETFO (Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario) walks towards the Ontario Superior Court of Justice with fellow union leaders, as they announce a legal challenge to Bill 115, in Toronto on October 11, 2012.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

About 76,000 elementary school teachers across Ontario will walk off the job next month, leaving parents scrambling to make alternative child-care arrangements and jeopardizing the remainder of the term.

Union leaders who announced the escalation of strike action on Wednesday would not say when walkouts would take place, or whether they would last a day or longer. Teachers reached by The Globe and Mail expressed a preference for a shorter walkout rather than spending the weeks leading up to the holiday break on the picket lines.

High school teachers may yet join them. Job action that limits administrative duties and student supervision resumed on Wednesday after leaders of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation called off negotiations between unions and school boards.

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Teachers at both levels are angry and frustrated over legislation introduced by the governing Liberals that dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike.

The province has the power to end any walkouts, but would be reluctant to do so before a Dec. 31 deadline for local bargaining.

The teachers began withdrawing voluntary services, including coaching and supervising clubs, in September. The new job action will deal a heavy blow to outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty, who built his political record on achieving labour peace in schools and on popular education policies such as caps on primary class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

All elementary local unions will be in a legal strike position before the holiday break. Most high school teachers are already at that point.

"We have absolutely no option," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "We understand the position that it's going to put parents in. This is the absolute last thing that we want to do. We're at a point where the democratic rights of my members … have been attacked. We are not going to stand by idly and allow this to happen."

Teachers vowed to give three days' notice before walking out. But that did little to diffuse the unease among parents, who were caught off guard and fear their children's schools could be closed all winter.

Ron Watson has two children at William Road Junior Public School in Toronto, where teachers will be in a legal strike position around Dec. 10.

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"I didn't realize it was as bad as [that]," Mr. Watson said. "It's unfortunate. This is about rights to collective bargaining, but at the same time they [teachers] weren't bargaining either and going to the table either. It's a little bit hypocritical."

Mr. Watson's children have a live-in nanny, but he worries about the effect a strike could have on their academics. "We're fortunate enough that we've got someone who can take care of them at home, but at the same time you don't want them to be missing out on school," he said.

Parent and teacher Kim Fry said she is in a tough situation. Her daughter is in Grade 4, and Ms. Fry began teaching this fall for the Toronto District School Board.

"Teachers, really, at this moment, have no choice but to engage in work action ... I think teachers right now have a responsibility to push back at the government's desire to take away our rights to collectively bargain," Ms. Fry said.

Davis Mirza, a teacher at the Alpha Alternative Junior School and a steward with the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union, said that union members are furious at the government.

"It's just that you can impose this thing while we're in negotiations; that's fine. But then, to prorogue the government and then to leave us in this kind of quagmire, it's kind of a detriment to labour, provincial and civil-service relationships."

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Teachers at both the elementary and high-school levels began showing their frustration in September after the introduction of Bill 115. High school teachers at some boards have been engaged in legal job action since early November, not submitting attendance records or supervising students outside the classroom.

The unions have launched a court challenge of Bill 115, and ordering the teachers back to work could damage the government's case.

Tentative deals reached between a handful of school boards and local union bargaining units began unravelling on Tuesday. Teachers at the York Region and Niagara District boards rejected the deals, which had been approved by Education Minister Laurel Broten.

Ms. Broten indicated that she could bring strike action to a halt.

"Disrupting learning time for students is not in the best interest of students," Ms. Broten said in a statement on Wednesday. "I will monitor strike actions very closely. The government does have tools to address these actions, and we will explore those options if required."

Leaders of both the OSSTF and the ETFO had vowed to ramp up job action as the dispute with the province dragged on. They have until Dec. 31 to reach a deal with their local school boards, which according to legislation, must be substantially similar to a deal reached between the Ontario government and the English Catholic teachers' union over the summer.

Teachers are opposed to the controversial legislation, which forces a wage freeze, cuts teachers' sick days and limits their right to strike. The minority Liberal government has maintained that these concessions were required to balance a $14.8-billion deficit while at the same time preserving job-generating initiatives such as caps on primary class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

 

CHRISTMAS CRISIS

All of Ontario's elementary school teachers will be in a legal strike position by the Christmas holidays. Here's a breakdown of four big boards:

Toronto District School Board

Legal strike position: week of Dec. 10

Number of elementary school students: 162,500

Peel District School Board

Legal strike position: Dec. 10

Number of elementary school students: 109,063

York Region District School Board

Legal strike position: Nov. 19

Number of elementary school students: 78,864

Durham District School Board

Legal strike position: Dec. 10

Number of elementary school students: 46,667

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About the Authors
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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