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Picketers from the four main teachers' unions march around Queen's Park during a provincewide strike, in Toronto, on Feb. 21, 2020.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of teachers and education workers marched along the streets circling Queen’s Park in Toronto on Friday, taking part in the first provincewide strike to shutter all publicly funded schools across Ontario.

The leaders of the four main teachers unions said they hoped that a joint strike that had 200,000 members hold mass rallies across the province would send a unified message to the Progressive Conservative government to withdraw the cuts being proposed at the bargaining table.

“We want this government to understand that over 200,000 teachers and education workers across this province are standing up and in one voice saying you must pull back these cuts,” Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) told reporters outside the legislature on Friday.

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Teachers and education workers have been without a contract since the end of August, and tensions have risen in recent months with the government.

Ontario school strike: A look at the key issues, from teacher wages to class sizes

Ontario teachers’ benefits remain a sticking point in bargaining talks with government

The strike on Friday involved around 30,000 union members picketing outside Queen’s Park, which was by far the largest demonstration in the province. The road encircling the building was closed to traffic to accommodate the protest. Teachers and education workers carried signs critical of the cuts being proposed by the government. Another 20,000 were picketing along a 30-kilometre stretch on Highway 10 in Peel Region.

“I’m hoping that it sends a message to the government … that we’re serious and we’re going to fight for our students. It’s not about the raises, despite what [Education Minister Stephen] Lecce keeps on saying. We’re here to fight for our students and for their education,” said Samantha Wood, a high-school teacher in Toronto.

Sarah Jacinto, who teaches Grade 8 in Toronto, said she’s had as many as 37 students in a class. She currently has 27 children in her class. “We want to do the best we can for our students, and the cuts that they’re proposing are not going to allow that to happen,” she said.

Inside the legislature, Mr. Lecce told reporters that the job action has “gone on for too long.” He said that some progress was made this week with OECTA and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

“The fact that they opted to pause that momentum, in effect, to strike today I think is really unfair to kids,” Mr. Lecce said. “We should have been negotiating today.”

Shortly after the strike action, OECTA said in a statement Friday evening that it would be pausing its rotating one-day strikes, planned for next week, after the mediator called all parties back to the bargaining table on Monday.

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Friday’s joint legal strike is the first in the history of education unions in Ontario. In 1997, when education workers walked off the job under then-premier Mike Harris, it was a political protest, not legal strike action, against changes being made to the education system.

OECTA and AEFO members were striking alongside their counterparts from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

The issues for the various unions include class-size increases in high school, mandatory online courses for high-school students and a hiring regulation that gives supply teachers with more seniority an edge in getting hired for long-term occasional and permanent teaching positions.

Benefits also remain a main sticking point, and one that led to a recent breakdown in talks between ETFO and the government. Those familiar with ETFO’s plan say benefits have been in some financial difficulty. The government told union negotiators that any increase in funding toward the plan would force cuts to special-education teaching supports.

ETFO, the country’s largest education union with 83,000 members, has threatened more job action next week. The union told its members earlier this week that it would announce 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.

Unions are required to give five days’ notice before they start job action or when they escalate their strike to fully withdrawing all services. However, there’s some debate about whether a similar notice is required if the strike action is modified.

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ETFO’s three days of renewed contracts talks with the government broke off earlier this month and the union stepped up its job action. 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.

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