Nearly 200,000 teachers in 72 school boards spent their Friday on the picket line instead of in the classroom, effectively shutting down nearly 5,000 schools in Ontario, and keeping nearly two million students at home. It was the biggest job action by Ontario teachers since 1997, and it was a further escalation in the labour face-off between teachers and the Government of Ontario that seems unlikely to end any time soon.
“Teachers want to be back in the classroom. teachers want a fair deal for their students, and we want the cuts reversed,” said Claire McCusker, a co-op teacher at GCVI who was co-ordinating the strike outside the school Friday afternoon. “We’re not asking for anything extra, we’re asking for the funding to be maintained, especially for our most at-risk students.”
The teachers of GCVI, represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), joined teachers from the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) around Guelph and across the province in striking on Friday. The usual pickets were formed in front of Guelph’s high schools, while elementary school teachers picketed in front of select schools including Ken Danby, Westwood, and Rickson Ridge for the first time.
McCusker said that she and her fellow teachers are feeling growing frustration after months of no progress. They’re concerned about mandatory e-learning, support for students with special needs, and larger class sizes that make it harder for students to get hands on learning, especially in areas like skilled trades.
“A kid who takes an auto class and only gets to do an oil change once over the year because he’s got 35 other people in his class is not an apprenticeship candidate, he just doesn’t have the experience,” McCusker said. “If Doug Ford says he supports getting kids into the skilled trades, this isn’t the way to do it.”
But the Government of Ontario continues to say that it’s Queen’s Park, and not the teachers unions, that are thinking about what’s best for students.
“Parents are losing patience with the union-caused disruption in their lives, the inconsistency in their children’s education, and the financial impact of scrambling for alternate care,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce in a statement released in advance of Friday’s strike action.
“While union leaders are continuing to organize further disruption, our government remains focused on getting deals that ensure students are learning each and every day,” he added.
“I think public support has increased since December, which is great,” McCusker said. “I really hope that the government listens to parents and students who oppose the cuts to education. We would like things to go back to the way they were before Doug Ford took power in order to maintain that high level of education.”
Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner agrees. “People have given a failing grade to his plan to pull thousands of educators out of schools,” he said in a statement. “The Conservatives are bull-headed if they keep negotiating for larger class sizes and per-student funding cuts. Clearly they have underestimated how much the public cares about public education.”
Might the rotating strikes be having an effect? Hard to say. Late this afternoon, the OECTA announced that they are calling off their planned one-day strike for next Friday. “The mediator has called the parties back to the table on Monday, February 24, and we have been assured that the discussions will continue to be meaningful,” said OECTA Liz Stuart in a statement. One of the boards that was going to be affected by next week’s strike was the Wellington Catholic District School Board.
So Guelph schools will be open next Friday? Actually, they will not because the OSSTF announced Friday that their rotating strikes will carry on, and the Upper Grand District and Wellington Catholic District School Boards will be affected.
“We want a deal that keeps students in class. Strikes by the teachers’ unions have resulted in millions of student days lost,” said Lecce in a statement released Friday. “While OSSTF demands a $1.5 billion increase in wages and benefits, we will advance the case for investment in our kids.”
This $1.5 billion claim has been debunked by the OSSTF, who said that their proposal for an annual cost of living increase tied to inflation would cost the Province $200 million.
“Despite their hollow claims, the Premier and the Minister are focused on one thing only: their careless, dangerous agenda of larger classes, mandatory e-learning, and fewer supports for the most vulnerable students,” said Harvey Bischof, President of the OSSTF. “It’s time for the Premier and the Minister to listen to the people of Ontario, abandon their campaign of disinformation, and negotiate, in good faith, an agreement that is good for the students of Ontario.”
Teachers in Ontario have been working without a contract since August 31, and McCusker said that as both a teacher and a mother she would like to see an end to the labour strife.
“My son started grade nine in the fall, and I’m seriously concerned about how much time he’s missed,” McCusker explained. “I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years, and I feel like we’ve spent a big chunk of that putting the education system back together after Mike Harris and his Conservatives broke it.
“I have no desire to spend the end of my career back together after Ford,” she added.