Half of Ontario public elementary school teachers walk out

Thousands of public elementary teachers in Ontario stayed away from their classrooms Tuesday to protest legislation that has given the provincial government the power to impose contracts on them and to quash future strikes.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said the daylong strikes held at hundreds of public elementary schools in eight Ontario school boards involved 35,000 teachers — nearly half of the union’s full membership — including nearly 14,000 teachers in the Toronto area alone.

The strikes, dubbed by some as "Super Tuesday," marked the public elementary teachers' single biggest day of action in a series of one-day rotating strikes that began last week.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has given three days’ notice for each of the single-day strikes.

Staff at public elementary schools in Toronto, Durham Region, Peel Region, Greater Essex County, Lambton-Kent, Grand Erie, Near North and Waterloo Region were all taking part in the strikes Tuesday.

Teachers are protesting Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act, which prevents teachers from striking and freezes the wages for most, while allowing younger teachers to still move up the salary grid.

Unions argue it infringes on their right to collective bargaining and has hamstrung efforts to reach fair agreements with school boards.

ETFO president Sam Hammond addressed pickets outside the headquarters of the Toronto District School Board on Tuesday afternoon. He said that public elementary teachers may follow the lead of their high school counterparts and stop engaging in extracurricular activities in the new year if a contract is imposed on them.

"It's something that they love to do, but they are so strongly and firmly committed to fighting this bill and standing up for democracy, they are prepared to step aside from those to ensure that our rights are not trampled on as we go forward," he said.

The walkouts by public elementary teachers across the province come in advance of a Dec. 31 deadline the governing Liberals have set for union locals to reach deals with their school boards.

Should the deadline pass without agreements in place, the government will impose a deal that will freeze the wages of many instructors and cut back benefits.

Hammond said Tuesday teachers will also stage a one-day "political protest" in the new year if a contract is imposed on them.

Education Minister Laurel Broten said a walkout past the Dec. 31 deadline would be illegal.

“It’s incredibly disappointing to hear Sam talk about what would be an illegal wildcat strike," she said in an interview on CBC's Metro Morning. "We will use every tool available to us."

Meanwhile, Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod has called on Broten to use Bill 115 — which the Tories supported — to end the strikes.

"The McGuinty Liberals have the ability, the power and the authority to end these strikes today," McLeod said at a news conference Tuesday.

"They chose to ignore their legislation in Bill 115 when these strikes started, we're simply asking them to invoke their own law," she added.

But New Democrat MPP Jonah Schein said "the main reason why kids aren’t in their class today in Toronto is because the Liberals have decided to work with [PC Leader] Tim Hudak and have pushed on with Bill 115."

Premier Dalton McGuinty has said the government will permit the current strikes to go ahead, as long as they do not persist beyond a single day in each case.

McGuinty weighed in on the walkouts during a morning appearance on CityTV's Breakfast Television, defending his government's position as a financial necessity.

"It's gotten a little sticky, that's unfortunate, but I am convinced we are doing the right thing for the long term," he said.

He urged teachers to return to the bargaining table and thanked parents for "all the extra efforts they are making to manage this circumstance."

"Thankfully, it's just the one day," he added.

In Toronto, there were pickets at most schools, the headquarters of the Toronto District School Board, the Ministry of Education and at the offices of four Liberal leadership candidates.

As a result of the walkouts, the Toronto District School Board closed all of its elementary and junior high schools to students. Buses did not run either. Daycare centres in elementary schools stayed open.

Gail Mecurio, who was on the picket line holding a sign asking passing drivers to "Honk for Democracy," said the issues that spawned the strike have an effect that goes beyond teachers.

“This is hitting all Canadians," she said. "We’re out here doing this for every Canadian. This is against our Charter of Rights. So this is a small stand that we’re doing. One day, but it’s important to us.”

West of the city, in Peel Region, teachers picketed 45 schools, the Peel Board office and the office of two Liberal leadership candidates.

In Durham Region, there were no pickets at schools. Instead, teachers are holding a rally at Oshawa’s Memorial Park.

A new round of daylong strikes will affect scores of public elementary schools in the Halton, Bluewater and Algoma boards on Wednesday. The next day, more walkouts will occur in the Limestone, Superior-Greenstone, Thames Valley and Upper Canada board elementary schools.

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