Local Elementary School Teachers Take Their Turn on the Picket Line

Using the sidewalks along Woolwich between Norfolk and Baker Street was tricky on Tuesday as hundreds of local elementary school teachers took part in a rotating one-day strike by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The second week of strike action hit the schools in the Upper Grand District Board, but it’s only the beginning of local labour strife with elementary teachers.

Elementary teachers in the Upper Grand District School Board joined those from Greater Essex County, Near North, and Limestone in the ETFO’s latest one-day strike on Tuesday. In Fergus, teachers picketed in front of Speaker Ted Arnott’s constituency office, and they also marched in front of Solicitor General Sylvia Jones’ office in Orangeville.

In Guelph, the teachers walked up and down Woolwich Street on both sides of the road and past the office of Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner, who is, granted, not a member of the government.

“At least we have support from Mike, and we know that,” said Jennifer Hesch, vice-president of the Upper Grand ETFO, and the president of the Guelph and District Labour Council.

“Mike’s always been supportive of the teachers,” Hesch added. “Unfortunately, he had meetings scheduled that he couldn’t cancel, but I talked to him on the phone this morning, and he sent his support and offered his washrooms and a warming station at his office.”

Schreiner did offer support remotely on social media, and he also released a statement saying that he was behind the ETFO teachers all the way.

“I thank the hundreds of educators, parents, students and allies who took strike action outside of my constituency office today,” Schreiner said. “They have my full support in rejecting the Conservative plan to drain resources from classrooms.”

As with their colleagues in the Catholic Board and the secondary schools, the ETFO teachers said that this is about more than money. “All we were asking for was cost of living increase, but that’s not what we’re here to protest,” Hesch said.*

For the elementary teachers, the most important issues come down to maintaining the current all-day kindergarten program, having more Early Childhood Education (ECE) workers in the classroom, having more support for children with special needs including a special focus on the needs of children with autism, and getting action on the increase of violent incidents in the classroom.

“We want to keep the world-class education system that we have here in Ontario,” Hesch explained. “We have high graduation rates, we have high scores in math and language, and we have have great supports, or we did until they cut all the funding. Parents see the damage that’s being done, and it’s only going to continue to get worse as they try and privatize the sell-off of education to the highest bidder.”**

Comments from the Minister of Education though made it clear that he thinks it’s the teachers that are looking for a higher bid.

“Repeated escalation at the expense of our students, to advance higher compensation, higher wages, and even more generous benefits, is unacceptable for parents and students in our province,” Stephen Lecce said in a statement yesterday. “We firmly believe students should be in class, which is why we continue to stand ready to negotiate to reach a deal Ontario students deserve.”

Lecce personally seems to be drawing the ire of teachers and progressive groups with social media posts like the one above questioning the Minister’s dedication to public education and understanding its issues. The concern was repeated on the picket line here in Guelph.

“Mr. Lecce is a private school graduate, and he has probably never set foot in a public school in his life,” said Hesch. “He doesn’t understand public education, and doesn’t even know the difference between an EA and ECE.”

In yesterday’s statement, Lecce said that the ETFO teachers were breaking their promise by disrupting the routines of kids, and forcing parents to make alternative arrangements.

“I think, for the most part, we do have support of the parents because they know the effects that these cuts have had on their children, especially students with special needs,” said Hesch. “Yes it’s an inconvenience, and it’s not business as usual, but this is something that needs to be done in order to put pressure on the government to get them back to the table.”

In late breaking news on Tuesday, it seemed that the gambit may have worked.

The EFTO released a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying that private mediator Denise Small had reached out to the union, the ministry, and the school boards to come back to the bargaining table and resume negotiations. The union’s president though has already said that talk of cuts to either services or personnel is off the table.

“It’s time that the Ford government recognized that our public education system is key to the future of this province’s economy,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond. “We must have the tools and supports to prepare students to realize their individual aspirations and productively contribute to the economic and social fabric of this province.”

The union is giving the renewed negotiations a couple of days to show progress, and if there’s none to be had, or if negotiations fall apart, the ETFO will proceed with the strike plan for next week they announced Monday. The current plan will see Upper Grand elementary students get two days off next week with the Upper Grand getting affected again by the rotating strikes next Tuesday, and then join a province-wide day of action next Thursday.

The accelerated job action by the ETFO next week will be compounded by another one-day strike by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) next Tuesday. Both the Catholic teachers, and the teachers of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) have been taking a break from one-day strikes over the winter exam period at Ontario high schools, which concludes at the end of this week.

The Wellington Catholic District School Board posted today a notice to parents that all elementary and secondary schools in their board will be closed next Tuesday unless the strike is somehow averted.

Back on the picket line, Hesch said that she would much rather be in her office, and her teachers would much rather be in their classrooms. “They don’t want to be out here losing a day’s pay, and out in the cold and walking the lines,” she said, “but they’re here because they want to have the best education system possible for our students.”

Corrections – January 29.

*The line was changed from “…that’s what we’re here to protest.”

** The line was changed from “…prioritize the sell-off education to the highest bidder.”

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