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Education Minister Stephen Lecce, seen here on Oct. 28, 2019, criticized the union’s move as 'troubling,' and said the teachers had 'turned their backs' on students and walked away from the bargaining table – something the union disputes

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario’s public high-school teachers will stage a one-day, provincewide strike next week to protest the lack of progress in contract negotiations with the government.

The Dec. 4 strike will be in addition to the work-to-rule campaign the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) started this week by withdrawing some services, including not providing comments on report cards.

This would mark the first strike by all public secondary school teachers since 1997, when education workers walked off the job to protest cuts by then-premier Mike Harris.

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Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, which represents 60,000 high-school teachers and support workers, said on Thursday that the one-day walkout, which would happen only if a deal has not been reached, is meant to put pressure on the government at the bargaining table. (The union also represents support staff at some boards, including educational assistants, early childhood educators and speech-language pathologists.)

“There’s time to reach a deal. This minister has demonstrated that he only reacts to pressure,” Mr. Bischof told reporters. Provincial public-sector unions are required to give five-days notice of job action.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce criticized the union’s move as “troubling,” and said the teachers had “turned their backs” on students and walked away from the bargaining table – something the union disputes.

“The decision point to escalate to remove kids from class for a day, or for any point in time, is unacceptable,” Mr. Lecce said.

The minister said wage hikes remained the main stumbling block, with the unions asking for a 2-per-cent increase reflecting the rate of inflation, in the face of the government’s wage-cap legislation meant to limit public-sector pay increases to 1 per cent.

Premier Doug Ford, speaking to reporters on Thursday, said the government’s goal is to keep children in the classroom. When asked if he’ll introduce back-to-work legislation, Mr. Ford said, “Let me have a chance to talk to [Mr. Lecce] and we’ll be able to answer that. But we really need to keep the kids in the classroom.”

Mr. Bischof said that, despite months of bargaining, the government and the school boards’ association has “avoided any meaningful discussion” on class size, mandatory online courses and other issues impacting learning.

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“Even in light of our current job action, far too little has changed at the table. We are left with no choice but to intensify our efforts to defend our education system against a government that has already begun to sabotage it," he said.

In recent weeks, the government has walked back its proposals on class sizes and online courses in an effort to portray itself as reasonable in its discussions with the union.

Last week, Mr. Lecce said high-school students will be required to take two online courses to graduate instead of the province’s initial plan of four. Recently, Mr. Lecce also softened the government’s stand on increasing class sizes in high schools to an average of 25 instead of the previous goal of 28 over four years. The current average is 22.5.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the province’s largest education union, with 83,000 members, also began a work-to-rule campaign this week that includes not filling out report cards or attending staff meetings. The union said its job action targets ministry and school board administrative tasks, and not those that affect students.

A third union representing education support workers, including caretakers and educational assistants, recently ratified a three-year deal that would see wage increases of 1 per cent each year.

With reports from Laura Stone

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