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Teachers picket in downtown Toronto, on Feb. 6, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

All publicly funded schools in Ontario will be closed for one day next week as the four main teacher unions stage the first ever provincewide strike amid stalled contract talks with Doug Ford’s government.

That means about 200,000 teachers and education workers will be off the job on Feb. 21, and thousands of families will be left scrambling to make child-care arrangements.

“It’s always difficult when we make the decision to be out on a line, but what will be even worse is if we allow these cuts [the government is proposing] to go through unchallenged,” Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association told reporters on Wednesday. Ms. Stuart was joined by her counterparts from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

The announcement of a provincewide strike was made as Education Minister Stephen Lecce spoke to an audience at a Canadian Club luncheon held at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto. All four union presidents were in the audience, and outside the hotel, hundreds of teachers protested.

Mr. Lecce told the audience that the strike being planned for next Friday was “irresponsible” and said he hoped for voluntary settlements over back-to-work legislation.

In a statement later in the day, he said: “While union leaders are organizing further disruption, our government remains focused on getting deals at the bargaining table through private mediation.”

The provincewide strike will be held on the same day the Ontario Progressive Conservative party will begin its annual policy convention in Niagara Falls. It is expected that union members in Niagara will be picketing outside the convention on Friday, with a bigger protest being planned for Saturday.

Next Friday’s joint legal strike is the first in the history of education unions in Ontario. Previously in 1997, when education workers walked off the job under premier Mike Harris, it was a political protest against changes being made to the education system.

All four teachers’ unions are currently involved in some type of job action, from work-to-rule to one-day walkouts, as tensions between them and the provincial government continue to rise.

For ETFO, in particular, three days of renewed talks recently broke down, and the union escalated its job action. Members are no longer supervising extracurricular activities, and report cards didn’t get sent home because teachers did not electronically input grades.

Further, public elementary schools have been closed twice a week because of a weekly provincewide strike, accompanied by rotating strikes that hit every public board on a certain day. Next week, ETFO members will only take part in the one-day strike. ETFO is the largest education union in the country, with 83,000 members.

At issue for the various education unions are class-size increases in high school, mandatory online courses for high-school students, funding for special-education supports, benefits, a hiring regulation that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting hired for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions, and protecting the full-day kindergarten program and staffing.

Mr. Lecce has also maintained that one of the main issues in negotiations has been wages, with the union asking for a 2-per-cent increase in the face of the government’s wage-cap legislation, meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent.

Union leaders, however, have argued that their members are simply asking for cost-of-living increases in line with inflation.

Apart from one day of negotiations on Wednesday between the government and AEFO, which represents French-language teachers, no other talks have been scheduled with the unions.

Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, said contract discussions between his union and the government broke off in December. Mr. Bischof told reporters that the four unions were compelled to act in a “show of unity” against the cuts being proposed by Mr. Lecce’s government.

“The different things that are on the table hardly matter in the face of a government that wants to slash fundamental supports for all of our students, and that’s why we’re prepared to stand up together on Friday, February 21 in a full day action,” Mr. Bischof said.

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