Ontario elementary teachers kick off week of rotating strikes

TORONTO — Elementary, high school and Catholic teachers in Ontario are engaging in a series of strikes this week, which are shutting down schools after months of increasing tensions and unproductive negotiations with the government.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario kicked off the week by targeting some of the province's largest school boards — Toronto, York Region and Ottawa-Carleton. The union is planning one-day strikes at other boards throughout the province all week.

Teachers carrying signs gathered outside schools in the frigid weather, at times joined by parents and other community members. Other parents dropped children off at day-long "strike camps," set up at art galleries, martial arts clubs, community centres and attractions such as the Toronto Zoo.

On Tuesday, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation is holding a one-day strike at some boards, as is the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association. The union representing teachers in the French system has started a work-to-rule campaign.

All four major teachers' unions are engaged in job action as they negotiate new collective agreements with the Progressive Conservative government and still seem far apart — an "extremely unusual" situation, one expert said.

"It's been over 20 years since there was action of this level and this week is exceptional to have rotating strikes every day involving three of the main unions," said Carol Campbell, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

The last time there was this level of labour disruption was under the previous Progressive Conservative government, she said.

Campbell doesn't think full strikes are inevitable at this point, but noted the parties are quite far apart and most unions don't have any more bargaining dates scheduled.

"It's deeply concerning if talks are not happening, because if talks are not happening a deal is not going to be reached and like all relationships people need to keep talking," she said.

The unions say that class size increases and the introduction of mandatory e-learning courses in secondary school are among the sticking points — elementary teachers also want guarantees on the future of full-day kindergarten.

"We know that this is a hardship for parents but it is crystal clear that to date, (Education Minister Stephen) Lecce is only interested in cuts to education," Joy Lachica, president of the Elementary Teachers' of Toronto said in a statement.

Lecce insists they're stuck on wages, with the unions asking for increases of around two per cent, and the government offering one per cent. The government passed legislation last year capping salary increases for public sector workers at one per cent for three years, and the teachers' unions are challenging it in court.

Lecce repeated his refrain Monday that strikes hurt kids.

"I think we owe it to the students of this province to not withdraw services from them and to ensure there's a continuum of learning," he said.

As the unions ramp up their labour action, the province has sought to strike back.

The government announced last week that it would compensate parents affected by the elementary teacher strikes.

Under the plan, parents whose kids aren't yet enrolled in school but attend school-based child-care centres affected by the strikes will get the most money — $60 per day — while those with children in grades 1 through 7 will get the least — $25.

While parents of secondary school students won't get any funding, those with children with special needs up to age 21 will get $40 per day — the same amount as parents whose kids are in kindergarten.

The Ministry of Education has said more than 139,000 parents have signed up for that program, which could cost the government $48 million per day if teachers from all school boards were to strike. That's less than the $60 million per day the government spends in teacher compensation.

A petition calling on the government to take the offered "bribe money" and put it back into education has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press