Ontario’s Education Showdown Gets More Intense as One-Day Strike Hits Guelph

The Upper Grand District School Board and the Wellington Catholic District School Board are getting their time to strike this coming Wednesday in the latest round of job action from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). Guelph’s two prevailing school boards are among the 16 listed as part of the OSSTF’s latest attempt to resolve their impasse in negotiations with the Province.

“The Minister of Education continues to peddle the false narrative that this dispute is about compensation,” said OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof in a statement Friday. “And yet, when we offered to call off our most recent job action in exchange for class size and staffing guarantees – issues entirely unrelated to compensation – the Ford government chose to reject that offer rather than keep students in classrooms.”

The announcement, which has become something of a Friday ritual since the one-day rolling strikes started back before the holiday break, comes on the same day that Bischof challenged Premier Doug Ford to take his contract offer directly to his members for a vote. In a TV interview Thursday, Ford accused union leadership of advancing a labour crisis when their members just wanted to deal.

“What I’m hearing from [teachers] is that they want to stay in the classroom and keep working,” Ford said on CP24. “And I differentiate between them and the heads of the unions.”

“I challenge [Ford] to bring forward his class size increases, bring forward his mandatory e-learning,” Bischof told CTV News in response to the Premier’s assertions. “Send it to a vote and have my members vote on it and we’ll see whether or not I’m accurately representing the wishes of my members.”

High school teachers have been saying through the current labour strife that their issue is not wages, but rather the increased class sizes and the government’s plan to make students take at least two classes through e-learning. The increased class sizes puts more pressure on teachers and results in job losses, and the job situation isn’t helped by the insistence that students take online courses either.

“We want to stop the cuts. The government keeps focusing on wages, and that’s not what this is about,” said Corrine MacGillivary, a teacher at GCVI who took part in a province-wide one-day stoke last month.

“Some classes are maxed out, and it’s hard to get around to every student in terms of helping them, and it will only get worse next year if the cuts continue,” she added. “If the government wants to have no caps, then who knows how many students we will have in our classes, and that will make it even more difficult to help the kids that need extra help.”

This message has been unchanged in the last several weeks since the one-day strikes began before the holidays, but that message seems to have not yet gotten through.

“For the fifth time, OSSTF union leaders have directed their members to not show up to class,” said Minister of Education Stephen Lecce in a statement Friday. “These union leaders will forcefully advocate for the interests of their members – from higher wages to enhanced entitlements – however, they ought not oppose the academic aspirations of our students.”

Labour Pressure Growing at Ontario Schools

The OSSTF is not the only teachers union causing headaches for the Ontario government and the Ministry of Education this week.

On Thursday, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announced that they’re working to rule stating on Monday. According to the union, because the government is demanding cuts while refusing to address key issues affecting students and educators, they’re taking increased job action that will see teachers withdraw participation in after school activities and field trips before proceeding to stronger work actions if the impass in negotiations continues.

“In six months of contract talks, the Ford government’s education minister has given his negotiators no mandate to discuss anything other than cuts to education including a $150 million cut to public elementary education,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond in a statement.

“This government’s approach to education sector contract talks is a sham,” Hammond added. “The government representatives have confirmed that they have no mandate to negotiate issues beyond cuts. They have met with ETFO for a very limited time on each of the 22 days of bargaining since August making it obvious that there is no intention or ability for them to address serious issues affecting the education of elementary students and educators.”

Lecce, obviously, disagrees. “We have delivered a ratified deal, and most recently a tentative deal, with education unions to date, and we are working to deliver further agreements that achieve our priority of keeping students in class,” he said Thursday.

“Union leaders promised that their escalation would not impact students and their learning. Regrettably, they have again broken that promise,” he added.

The ETFO’s announcement came one day after Ontario’s Catholic school teachers with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) also announced that starting Monday they were limiting their work activities to just teaching in the classroom, and that they will not attend staff meetings, participate in Ministry initiatives, or make notes on report cards beyond the letter grade.

“We have not taken this decision lightly, but we believe it is necessary to secure a fair contract and protect publicly funded education in Ontario,” said Liz Stuart, President of OECTA, in a media statement. “We have been doing our part to negotiate an agreement, including meeting almost 40 times with the government and school board trustees. However, the Ford government has been disorganized and disrespectful throughout the process, and they continue to insist on an agreement that includes significant cuts.”

Lecce responded by reaching for a familiar talking point. “Parents are justifiably frustrated that teacher unions escalate every few years,” he said Wednesday. “That is why we are calling on the union to cease from escalating, and focus on reaching a deal that provides stability for our students.”

It was also announced this week that the Ministry of Education was cancelling the EQAO math test for grade 9 students that was supposed to take place this month due to the escalating tensions between teachers and the government. Lecce said that students will have an opportunity to make up the test in June when, hopefully, the job action at Ontario’s high schools has been resolved.

Stay tuned.

Photo Credit: Teachers, and members of the OSSTF, demonstrating outside of Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute during a one-day strike back in November 2019. 

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