Teachers at a three-day workshop focused on music in primary grades, hosted by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.
Credits: NICKI CRUICKSHANK
Will teachers go on strike? Or will the provincial government beat them to it and try to legislate them back to work before they get the chance? And if it does, will it prevent disruption in our schools?
Ontario’s provincial government keeps warning unions and school boards have got to get deals by Aug. 31 or the start of school Sept. 4 could be jeopardized. And in that case, the government is prepared to use legislation.
This week the president of the province’s biggest teachers union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said at ETFO’s annual meeting the government knows teachers can’t go on strike Sept. 4.
Even if they mobilized now, they wouldn’t be in a legal strike position.
“We will be in those schools to start the school year,” president Sam Hammond told reporters outside the meeting Monday.
I accept that. But what Hammond wouldn’t be clear on was whether his members — teachers working in English, public elementary school classrooms — would walk out of class before the union is legally able to strike, an idea teachers voted on in June.
“The day of political protest, that my members across the province supported 93%, may be implemented if this government moves ahead with their legislation and second reading of that bill,” Hammond said.
Whether that happens before or after teachers are legally able to strike, Hammond replied, “we’ll have to see how this plays out.” So while the McGuinty government has been playing politics with this whole teacher contract mess — a mess the government has contributed to, should anyone try to paint them as the good guys — the union is playing strategy of its own.
Neither gives any assurance to parents.
With two by-elections coming up, the politics will only intensify.
One question is whether the Liberals will attempt, as they’ve suggested, to legislate an end to the dispute before school starts, should school boards and unions not get contracts with each other by Aug. 31.
Or, would they wait until those by-elections happen Sept. 6 to see if they can get a guaranteed majority of Liberal votes to pass the legislation?
If they do wait, they can tell voters only they can ensure classes go on uninterrupted, ETFO’s threat notwithstanding.
That would ignore the fact the Liberals helped create the mess by not freezing or at least limiting teachers’ pay four years ago and instead gave raises up to 12.55%, when the recession was hitting and other taxpayers were losing their jobs.
And this dispute is not only between teacher unions who don’t want to take a pay freeze and the government. The only teacher deals the province has managed to get have been with unions — Catholic teachers and French school teachers. The teachers’ official employers, school boards (save for the Toronto Catholic board) have not signed.
They don’t have a problem with pay freezes but complain bitterly of having their official bargaining role circumvented by the province, and then having the province make deals with the above two unions that boards feel hands over important management rights.
The Liberals may fashion themselves over the next three weeks into white knights who will rescue Ontario’s school system from labour chaos. But it will be a chaos the government has helped to create.