Another week, another day of strike action by Ontario teachers, but this time the union walking the picket lines was different. Here in Guelph, and around Ontario, the teachers of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) took part in a one-day, province-wide strike to register their concern about the future of students as the impasse in negotiations with the Province continues.
“We’re all confronted with the same cuts,” said Mark Berardine, the unit president for OECTA Wellington. “The cuts that [the OSSTF] high school students are facing are the same as our high school students.”
Berardine noted that his members working in elementary schools have their issues too.
“The fear that the government’s going to make cuts to the FDK [full-day kindergarten] program is the same for our public school elementary union as well as the Catholic elementary teachers” he explained. “When you look at the massive cuts that hit high school, and the unwillingness of the government to be honest with what they’re doing with FDK and guaranteeing it won’t change, we have the same concerns for what education will look like at the end of this four-year cycle.”
In representing the Catholic school teachers of Guelph and Wellington, Berardine is echoing what’s being said by his union’s leadership about what’s driving the job action.
“Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says the government is being reasonable and bargaining in good faith, but we have been told explicitly by their negotiating team that they have no mandate or authority to reach an agreement that does not include significant, permanent cuts,” said OECTA President Liz Stuart last week in a statement.
“It is clear that some members of this government view publicly funded education as nothing more than an expense,” she added.
Lecce released a statement of his own on Tuesday to affirm that he and his ministry are as interested in a solution as the teachers and their unions.
“We fully recognize the negative impacts teacher union escalation is having on families. It is why we are calling on these union leaders to end these strikes, given the adverse effects on students and financial hardship on parents,” Lecce said. “While this union-led escalation happens far too often, we are committed to negotiating deals that keep students in class, while providing financial support for families for child care needs.”
“If the Minister of Education is truly focused, as he incessantly claims, on keeping kids in class, then he will accept our offer and come back to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith,” said Harvey Bischof, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation in his own statement.
The OSSTF held another one-day strike in nine boards on Tuesday. While OSSTF has been picketing on Wednesdays, winter exams in high schools later this week, and the union didn’t want to create unnecessary conflict for students.
Bischof himself started the day by joining teachers in a demonstration in front of the constituency office of Premier Doug Ford in Etobicoke. Like his Catholic colleagues, Bischof said the government is more concerned about cutting costs than working with teachers.
“The evidence is mounting that this government’s priorities have nothing to do with the well-being of students,” he said. “The Doug Ford secret plan for e-learning implementation, which came to light this week, reveals a government whose obsessions are exclusively fiscal.”
Berardine: Times and Expectations Have Changed
Outside Our Lady of Lourdes at the noon hour on Tuesday, over 100 teachers were taking part in the picket line there. About a dozen teachers from GCVI walked up the road to support their Catholic colleagues, returning the favour from when members of the OECTA supported OSSTF teachers during their strike action last week.
Although all Catholic schools in the Wellington Catholic District School Board were closed, the picket lines were set up at local secondary schools, and outside the Fergus constituency office of Progressive Conservative MPP Ted Arnott. “There are daycares at some of the [elementary schools] so we don’t want to interfere with parents trying to bring their kids to their regular daycare,” Berardine said adding that the union also wanted to centralize efforts.
“We’ve never done rotating strikes, but I think that we see the advantage,” Berardine said. “It’s low impact on our members, it’s lower impact on the parents, it keeps the conversation going, and it lets the government know that we’re not going to accept these cuts because it’s going to destroy our schools.”
That may sound over the top, but Berardine said that he saw it before in the 90s when the OAC year in high school was eliminated by the Ontario government of the time, and a rough transition followed for two senior classes of high school students who graduated in the same year. In 2020 though, teaching itself has changed, and it’s an even more delicate system when you start increasing class sizes according to Berardine.
“Now everything’s so much more interactive with problem solving and discussions, from FDK all the way up to high school we’re meeting every kid at a level they need to be met at and you just can’t win with bigger classes,” Berardine said. “The kids need so much more these days, and if you got 35 or 40 in the room then you might not notice that something maybe wrong, like maybe they’re being bullied.”
“When they say ‘a cap’ they’re always talking average, and that’s the problem because it means you can have 15 in a tech class but that you’re looking at the 35-40 in physics or math,” he added.
“People are united in their rejection of cuts to education. Parents understand the issues that education workers are fighting for,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a statement Tuesday. “What I keep hearing from people is that education is an investment that needs funding.”
Berardine said that parents understand why the teachers are taking labour action, and they are getting that support.
“Parents know that this is going to impact students,” he said. “We lost 15 teachers in Wellington Catholic, we lost 42 classes at secondary, and we lost two of our most important programs for at risk youth, and that’s just a sample of what’s happened so far in every board across the province.”
This might be the last strike action you see for a couple of weeks as high schools head into exams, but Berardine said that the union will be sure to give parents plenty of notice in advance of the next action, and that they will always act with the goal of trying to do right by their students.
“Every teacher cares about their kids, every teacher takes from their own pocket at some point whether it’s classroom supplies, or decorating those primary rooms,” he said. “We are willing to lose a day’s pay to ensure that the system stays the same.”