The Ontario government is threatening to block the province’s elementary school teachers from walking off the job next month.
All elementary local unions will be in a legal strike position before the holiday break.
But Education Minister Laurel Broten is putting union leaders on notice that the government has the power to intervene and keep students in the classroom.
Under the controversial Bill 115 introduced in September, the government has the tools to impose a wage agreement on teachers, banning strikes or lockouts, Ms. Broten told reporters on Thursday. In addition, she said, the government can prohibit strike action through an order-in-council – a move that would not require legislative approval.
“We will continue to negotiate until we reach agreements, or we will use the tools available to us under the Putting Students First Act,” Ms. Broten said. “Parents expect us to protect the learning experience for their kids and strikes aren’t in their best interests.”
Ms. Broten hinted that the government would intervene if it deems that any strike action puts the safety of students at risk. However, she refused to answer repeated questions about whether the government does in fact plan to force teachers to remain on the job, saying she did not want to speculate on what tools the government would use.
“At this point in time it is too early to tell what strike action will look like, what it will entail,” Ms. Broten said.
She stressed that the action elementary teachers are contemplating is much more sweeping than what is already taking place in many high schools, where teachers began withdrawing voluntary services, including coaching and supervising clubs, since September.
Teachers are angry about the legislation introduced by the governing Liberals that dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike.
The province has the power to end any walkouts, and Ms. Broten hinted that the government would be prepared to act before a Dec. 31 deadline for local bargaining.
“We are in a position to respond now,” Ms. Broten said. However, she added, there is no indication that any school board is poised to give the 72-hour notice of strike action.
“We did not ban the right to strike across the province, but we built into the legislation the ability to respond,” she said.
Opposition members said the fraught relations between the government and the province’s teachers are further evidence that Premier Dalton McGuinty was wrong to prorogue the legislature last month, a move that has caused virtually all business to grind to a halt.
“The Premier needs to step up, he needs to recall the legislature. We need to repeal Bill 115 and we need to reset the button on negotiations,” said New Democratic Party MPP Catherine Fife.
Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman called the situation “unacceptable,” one that he said has been “aggravated by prorogation, which has created an absence of government in the province of Ontario.”