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Teachers gathered in large numbers in front of the Minister of Education Offices on Bay Street in Toronto in this Jan. 15, 2013, file photo.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's elementary teachers' union engaged in illegal strike action when local leaders at two school boards told members they must stop leading voluntary activities, according to a decision released by the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

The two small boards, Upper Canada District School Board in eastern Ontario and Trillium Lakelands District School Board in cottage country north of Toronto, submitted a complaint to the labour board in January that included e-mails and other communications from union leaders. Members were told not to collect milk and pizza money, participate in report-card workshops, distribute school newsletters or attend field trips.

The labour board decision on Thursday maintains that such activities remain voluntary, but that stopping those activities in a widespread and concerted manner constitutes strike action. Chair Bernard Fishbein ruled that because teachers stopped being in a legal strike position in January, communications from local-level union leaders that told teachers they must stop these activities constituted an illegal strike.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario released a statement Thursday saying it would abide by the decision, and pointing to the volume of work teachers do on a voluntary basis.

"There is no other profession where people are expected to perform hours and hours of voluntary service each week, and then are castigated for making personal decisions to put their principles, their families, and their own welfare first," said ETFO president Sam Hammond.

The decision comes as ETFO continues talks with the provincial government. Mr. Hammond said last week that those talks were close to yielding a tentative deal, prompting him to stop advising his members to halt voluntary activities.

Leaders of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation also stopped their protests recently, and members will begin voting this weekend on a tentative deal reached with the province that improves on contract terms imposed by Bill 115. The agreement in principle boosts compensation for newer teachers who lost sick days they had banked under former contracts.

The teachers' unions have launched a Charter challenge of Bill 115, which is expected to be heard in the fall. Mr. Fishbein noted that his decision could be overridden if Bill 115 is found to be unconstitutional.

The labour board chair's decision also examined whether voluntary activities fell under the definition of a strike. Mr. Fishbein ruled they did – setting an important precedent for future education-sector labour disputes.

"Not only does the plain and clear wording of the [Education Act] easily include these activities but I think, if only from both the labour relations purpose and perspective, this is the far better interpretation, particularly in the education sector with its long history and expectations about the delivery of these types of activities," Mr. Fishbein wrote in his decision.

Trillium Lakelands director of education Larry Hope released a statement saying the application "was about student, staff, and school community engagement."

"Our expectations have always been, and continue to be, based on engagement, collaboration, and co-operation among all partners in the public education system. We look forward to continuing to work with all teachers in the system to provide a fully-rounded school experience for all staff and students."

Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said that the decision was helpful in elucidating how teachers' unions can direct their members on extracurricular activities.

"It's helpful because there's been some ambiguity, and now we have clarity with respect to what is a strike," he said.