Ontario’s public elementary teachers’ union and the government have agreed to return to the bargaining table, a promising development even though schools could still be closed for two days next week if a deal isn’t reached by Friday.
Both sides said a Ministry of Labour mediator reached out to the parties to resume negotiations on Wednesday. It is unclear if either side has changed its position on any of the issues and whether Wednesday’s talks will move the negotiations forward.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the largest teacher union in Canada with 83,000 members, said on Tuesday it will go ahead with its planned strike action unless an agreement is reached with Doug Ford’s government by the end of this week.
The union plans to stage a full provincewide walkout on Feb. 6. This would be accompanied by a week of rotating strikes that would hit every public board on a certain day. That means schools would be shut down twice in one week by job action, leaving thousands of parents scrambling for child care.
The union told its members in a memo this week that the one-day provincewide and one-day rotating strikes would continue “each week” unless there is a deal. School boards have said that if the walkouts happen, they would have no choice but to shutter elementary schools on those days.
ETFO president Sam Hammond said in a statement that while the union was willing to resolve the labour dispute, “open exploratory talks with the Ford government’s negotiators must include a mandate to remove further cuts.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the government is looking to reach a negotiated settlement that ends the labour unrest. “Our hope is the union will come to the table with realistic proposals that prioritize student success over compensation demands,” he said.
Among the issues for the ETFO are class sizes in kindergarten, junior and intermediate grades, supports for students with special needs, and a commitment from the government to maintain the full-day kindergarten model with a teacher and an early childhood educator.
Mr. Lecce has maintained the main stumbling block in negotiations has been wages, with the ETFO and the other education unions 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 say their members are asking for cost-of-living increases in line with inflation.
The ETFO began rotating strikes last week, and is continuing them through this week. The union has also been engaged in work-to-rule, and starting next Monday, members will not participate in extracurricular activities.
All the main education unions in the province are involved in some type of job action, from work-to-rule to one-day walkouts, for the first time in more than 20 years, as tensions between the province and education unions continue to escalate.
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said on Tuesday that its members will participate in a second one-day, provincewide walkout on Feb. 4. Catholic teachers engaged in a one-day strike earlier this month. No talks have been scheduled between the union and the government.
The union representing public high-school teachers has also held a provincewide walkout and rotating strikes to protest against the government’s plans to increase class sizes and mandate two online courses for high-school students. The union has refrained from strikes during the current exam period.