Schools to shut down next week as Ontario’s major education unions launch coordinated strike

TORONTO — Elementary and secondary schools across Ontario will be shut down for a full day next week, as the province’s four major education unions launch a coordinated one-day strike in response to fruitless negotiations.

The strike, which the groups estimate will impact nearly 5,000 schools and nearly 200,000 teachers and education workers, was announced in the midst of a “fireside chat” event with Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Wednesday.

As hundreds of educators picketed outside the downtown Toronto hotel where the event was held, the leaders of the four unions — the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation — sat inside the Fairmont Royal York, a stone’s throw from the stage where Lecce spoke.

“It’s the only way we actually get to be in the room with the Minister,” OECTA President Liz Stuart alleged to reporters gathered at the hotel on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Lecce’s on-stage remarks concluded. “It’s the only time we actually get to hear from him, because I think I speak for my colleagues when I say none of us have personally heard from the Minister since this began,” she added. 

Lecce was not made available to speak with reporters on Wednesday. During the on-stage conversation, he was asked about the pushback he’s received from educators and their unions — and claimed in response that there were “a lot of forces out there” that opposed any change to the system.

Tensions have been high between the PCs and Ontario’s education unions for months, with accusations lobbed back and forth by both sides about the other being unwilling to budge from their positions in collective bargaining. Formal talks have been on and off in recent weeks, as various degrees of job actions, including rotating school strikes, continue to escalate across the province.

No deals have been reached with education groups in Ontario since mid-December, when a tentative agreement was reached with the Education Workers’ Alliance of Ontario. That deal was ratified last week. Two months earlier, in October, the government also reached an agreement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees; that deal was ratified in November.

Some glimmers of progress have emerged this week. The union representing Franco-Ontarian teachers announced on Tuesday that mediation would resume with the province on Wednesday. But the same union is also set to launch the third phase of job action — once a week walk-outs, for regular and occasional teachers province wide — on Thursday. Their union president, Rémi Sabourin, said mid-day Wednesday that he had nothing new to report on the talks. “Things are stalling,” he said.

No dates with any of the other unions are currently scheduled, the province confirmed. 

Harvey Bischof, who serves as president of the secondary educators’ union, pointed on Wednesday to their last bargaining dates with the PCs. “We haven’t met since December 16, when we met for half a day — at which point the mediator said the two sides were too far apart to make this anything but a frustrating exercise,” Bischof told reporters in Toronto. “We have not heard back since then that the government was prepared to make a single move that will support student services. Not one, not in two months.”

READ MORE: Ontario education unions launch court challenges of public sector wage cap

The elementary teachers’ union, meanwhile, recently claimed that a deal had been within reach during their talks on Jan. 31, following three days of bargaining with the province — but also claimed that the provincial government had then “abruptly” changed its position. Union President Sam Hammond alleged that the PCs’ negotiators did not sign a letter of commitment to maintain the current kindergarten model in Ontario — a key issue in their talks, which Lecce has claimed the PCs are committed to.

Hammond also alleged that the government’s position on special education funding was “less than half” of the priority and special education funding that was negotiated in 2017, and that government negotiators had introduced demands for “major concessions around fair hiring.” On the question of hiring practices, Lecce has presented the government’s position as eschewing rules around hiring teachers based on seniority in favour of merit-based selection.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce was a guest at the Canadian Club luncheon event at the Royal York Hotel. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik

Other prominent debates at the negotiating tables include class sizes and the government’s plan to implement mandatory online learning for high-school students. Compensation has been an area subject to particular public disagreement, especially in talks with the secondary educators’ union, who have requested a two per cent increase in salary and a six per cent increase in benefits — arguing that doing so would keep pace with the rate of inflation. Lecce has billed their ask as an “unacceptable request.”

Compensation issues at any of the negotiating tables are complicated by the PC government’s new public sector wage cap legislation, which was passed at Queen’s Park in the fall and limits increases to one per cent. Despite the legislation containing a mechanism allowing for exceptions, Premier Doug Ford told reporters in January that his government won’t budge on that cap.

It’s an argument that will likely play out in the courts as well as at the negotiating table, as the associations representing Ontario’s public elementary, public secondary, French and English Catholic educators are among unions challenging the public sector wage cap legally — arguing that it violates their constitutional rights to unrestricted collective bargaining.

READ MORE: Amid fractious talks, Ontario education minister requests mediation with unions

Opposition parties have sharply critiqued the PCs’ handling of education negotiations, with NDP leader Andrea Horwath advocating in recent weeks for Lecce’s removal from the education post — arguing that he had “demonized” education workers since assuming the role last June. (Ford’s office has reportedly rejected that call.) The NDP has also taken aim at Ford’s remarks around teacher bargaining, including his labelling of education unions as “thugs” last year.

Another saga has been playing out on the sidelines. Earlier this month, full-page newspaper ads appeared in the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Sun from a group presenting itself as “Vaughan Working Families,” deriding teacher’s union leaders and accusing them of using children as “pawns.” The Star has since traced the ads back to a lawyer whom the provincial PCs appointed as vice-chair of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario last year, Quinto Annibale — noting that it was unclear if a client had commissioned the pricey ad. Ford’s office has denied any connection to the spate of advertisements.

The education union leaders were pressed on Wednesday about the impact of ongoing labour action on families in Ontario, to which Sabourin acknowledged that they were “asking a big sacrifice of everybody.” Bischof told reporters all the groups still had somewhat different issues on the table, and that he believed individual bargaining would still be required despite the group’s decision to strike in coordination. 

There was no one breaking point that spurred the latest move, Hammond told reporters. “We’re just at a point where this has become a fight where we need to step forward, in a different way, together,” he said.

The strike is to take place on Feb. 21 — which is also the first day of the PCs’ 2020 policy conference.

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