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Protesters are seen outside of the Royal York Hotel as Ontario's Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks during a luncheon talk at the Canadian Club of Toronto, on Feb. 12, 2020.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

About 200,000 Ontario teachers and education workers will be on the picket line Friday in the first ever provincewide strike that will close all publicly funded schools, with the threat of more labour action next week.

The four main teachers’ unions will walk off the job together, with mass rallies planned across the province, including 30,000 union members taking their strike action to Queen’s Park and another 20,000 picketing along a 30-kilometre stretch on Highway 10 in Peel Region. Teachers and education workers have been without a contract since the end of August.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the country’s largest education union, has threatened more strike action next week as contract talks have stalled with the Progressive Conservative government. The union told its 83,000 members in a memo this week that it would reveal its “Phase 6 strike protocol” on Monday and that those actions would begin Wednesday, two days later. There were no other details provided in the memo.

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Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the massive strike action set for Friday “unhelpful” and said warnings from ETFO of unknown new work action next week was worrying for parents. He said the government was redoubling its efforts to get negotiated deals with the unions.

“Parents are rightfully frustrated. This has gone on for too long,” Mr. Lecce told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

Joy Lachica, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, a local of ETFO, declined to provide any details about ETFO’s job action next week.

“I would say that you can be sure that we have everyone’s best interests in mind and certainly we want nothing more than to have the government meet us at the table to negotiate a deal that is positive and constructive for students, for families and for the future of public education,” Ms. Lachica said.

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, a hiring regulation that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting hired for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions, and protection of the full-day kindergarten program and staffing.

The Globe and Mail revealed this week that benefits funding is a main sticking point in discussions, and one of the issues that led to a recent breakdown in talks between ETFO and the government. Those familiar with ETFO’s plan say the benefits plan has been in some financial difficulty, and the government told union negotiators that any increase in funding toward the plan would force cuts to special-education teaching supports

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 then-premier Mike Harris, it was a political protest against changes being made to the education system.

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ETFO will strike alongside its counterparts from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens.

All four unions have been engaged in job action, ranging from work-to-rule to rotating one-day strikes.

ETFO’s job action has included not supervising extracurricular activities or organizing field trips. The union also told its members in November not to electronically input data for Term 1 report cards as part of its job action. School boards recently said that they would not be issuing report cards for that term, which would have been sent home earlier this month.

Further, ETFO escalated its job action this month after renewed contract talks broke off with the provincial government. For two weeks this month, English public elementary schools in the province closed twice a week, because of a weekly provincewide strike, accompanied by rotating strikes that hit every public board on a certain day.

ETFO said in an e-mail statement on Thursday that it would not be “releasing any information about phase 6 or what any further job action will look like at this time and as such, there is no comment from [president] Sam Hammond."

Unions are required to give five days’ notice before they start job action, which does not necessarily mean withdrawing all services. If they escalate their strike to fully withdrawing services, they must give another five days’ notice. However, there’s some debate about whether a similar notice is required if the strike action is modified.

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