Ontario’s high-school teachers are divided over whether to resume supervising extracurricular activities despite instructions from union leaders to stop political protests.
Though many are keen to resume leading clubs and sports teams right away, others are waiting to hear more about what promises, if any, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) has won from the provincial government.
“I’ll be waiting and seeing,” said Suche James, athletic director at Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston, Ont., and president of the Eastern Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association.
The union estimates that about 20 per cent of high school teachers will continue their protest, another 20 per cent will resume leading extracurriculars, and about 60 per cent are still deciding, according to a letter sent to OSSTF members Sunday and obtained by the Globe and Mail.
The confidential document identifies “priority issues” for the union, including protections for local bargaining and powers to make mid-term changes to collective agreements, as well as long-term protections to the pay grid that enables teacher salaries to climb from about $40,000 to $90,000 over ten years based on education and experience. (Legislation introduced in September sought a revision to that grid, with a view toward savings.)
Teachers are angry at the government for imposing the terms of their contracts through legislation. Mr. James said he would be happy to see the bargaining process between teachers and the government formalized and protected by law, but that others will likely insist on changes to the terms that were imposed, such as cuts to sick days.
“If you look at Twitter, teachers are too angry to start leading extracurriculars again. If you ask the union, all the clubs and sports teams are coming back. The reality is probably somewhere in between,” he said.
Pressure has been mounting in recent weeks for teachers to stop the political protest, as fears grew that the loss of extracurriculars could drive students away from the public system into Catholic or private schools, where clubs and sports teams haven’t been disrupted. “The concern is that Grade 8s are making their choice right now whether to go Catholic or public schools,” said one Windsor, Ont., high-school teacher with close to five years’ experience. “If we lose a lot of student enrolment, younger teachers could lose positions.”
The rise in these concerns coincided with a leadership change for the Ontario government, which has resurrected talks between union leaders and the province under new premier Kathleen Wynne.
Sources said local OSSTF leaders learned of the motion being brought forward the night before Friday’s vote. There was a passionate debate in the room Friday, but in the end, local presidents were asked to trust their leadership, sources said. Many – not all – agreed to the request that teachers reinstate extracurriculars.
There was fear that an Ontario Labour Relations Board decision could affect high-school teachers (two small school boards, Upper Canada District School Board and Trillium Lakelands District School Board, are arguing that the elementary teachers union has mandated teachers to stop voluntary activities, which they say constitutes an illegal strike. A decision is expected shortly). There was also concern among OSSTF leaders that public opinion was no longer in their favour, sources said. Multiple meetings between OSSTF and the government Thursday led to an agreement to formalize the bargaining process, a government source said.
The union’s executive voted unanimously to restore extracurriculars based on progress made in those talks, but some local-level leaders opposed the idea.
Although it was clear discussion with the province were going well, the timing of the teachers’ vote seemed to come as a surprise to the government. Premier Wynne was in Ottawa, where she was meeting with business leaders, and Education Minister Liz Sandals was in her home riding of Guelph doing local constituency work when they learned of the results.
“To be perfectly honest, we understood from the ongoing negotiations and the ongoing discussions because, obviously, the premier’s staff and my staff have been meeting with both the elementary and secondary teachers, we knew that OSSTF was meeting today…we didn’t know how long it would take them, how long the discussion would take,” she said.
With files from Adrian Morrow