Premier Dalton McGuinty has been pushing a reluctant Ontario government to block the walkouts by elementary school teachers that are set to begin on Monday.
Sources told The Globe and Mail that most Liberal MPPs are reticent to heat up the battle with teachers over the controversial Bill 115. But the Premier is one of a handful of hawks, also said to include Education Minister Laurel Broten, more disposed toward using the powers granted by that legislation to thwart plans for a series of rotating one-day strikes.
Ms. Broten is to announce Thursday morning whether the government will take pre-emptive action against the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which has announced that teachers at the Timmins-based North East school board and the Avon Maitland board, in Stratford, will be the first to walk out on Dec. 10.
Sources said that the union representing elementary-school teachers is planning walkouts in every public school board in the province, reaching two districts every day over the two weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays.
In a sign of the divisions within the Liberal caucus, which has not met since mid-November, most Liberal MPPs have been kept in the dark about whether the government will intervene. That includes leadership candidates vying to replace Mr. McGuinty as Premier, several of whom have expressed discomfort with the government's hard-line stance in this year's labour negotiations.
Mr. McGuinty, who built a now-tarnished legacy on labour peace in education, has himself previously called the fight "regrettable" and said that in retrospect he should have done more to "reach out." But on Wednesday, he urged teachers to keep the dispute out of the classroom.
"If we can't resolve this at the table, then let's not try to resolve it inside our schools," Mr. McGuinty said shortly before the date of the first walkout was announced.
If the government blocks the strike action, it will likely cite safety concerns for younger students whose parents might not be able to arrange suitable alternate plans, even with the 72-hour notice that the ETFO has promised to provide.
Elementary teachers have endorsed a plan to walk out anyway, in a day of protest, should the government move to block their strike.
About 1,000 teachers plan to picket schools and head offices at Avon Maitland and Ontario North East. Ted Doherty, director of education at Avon Maitland, said that principals and other administrators will be present in order to assist any children who may show up at school.
Elementary teachers aren't the only ones angry at Bill 115. High school teachers, who have been on work-to-rule for nearly a month, are escalating their job action by stopping extra-curricular activities such as clubs, sports and fundraisers.
That could potentially lead to lockouts, if school boards decide that the actions of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation make it impossible to keep classrooms open.
Negotiations between the province and elementary teachers were particularly strained from the start, with the union leaving the provincial bargaining table in February.
Bill 115, which was introduced in August, stipulates that new contracts will be imposed by the government if they are not signed by Dec. 31. Using as a framework a deal reached with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, which ends the "banking" of sick days and will require teachers to take unpaid days off, it sets out specific requirements for any agreements between school boards and local bargaining units reached before that deadline.
The opposition Progressive Conservatives, whose support allowed Bill 115 to pass in September, have repeatedly called on Ms. Broten to invoke its provisions allowing her to block strike actions. Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday that her party would repeal the legislation – which teachers plan to challenge in court – if elected.
Mr. McGuinty has defended Bill 115 as necessary to allow the government to preserve programs such as full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes while tackling a $14.4-billion deficit.