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Students return to classes following a public high-school teachers strike was declared illegal at Mississauga Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont. Wednesday May 27, 2015.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's teachers unions are increasingly synchronized, with some threatening that their individual frustrations could snowball into an unprecedented mass strike in September.

Catholic and public, elementary and secondary, English and francophone – if all the unions' worst-case scenarios come to pass, two million students could be out of school next fall.

"We would be looking at September as not being a normal school year," said James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.

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"Likely, we would like proceed to work-to-rule action in early September … and probably a full withdrawal of services before the month of September is over."

Teachers' contracts all expired last August and the four unions have been negotiating simultaneously. Now, each union is laying groundwork to be able to walk off the job in the next few months if talks don't go well. Some unions have acted earlier than others, and the results have helped fuel their counterparts' anger.

On Monday, the province moved to force striking high-school teachers back to work in Durham, Sudbury and Peel. The legislation is expected to pass on Thursday.

In the meantime, the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled Tuesday that the teachers had walked out illegally, since they were striking at the local level while talking mostly about bargaining issues that their union must negotiate centrally with the province.

That ruling reopened schools on Wednesday, but the labour board's ruling is only in effect for two weeks, prompting the province to push ahead with its back-to-work legislation in order to save the final two weeks of school. Nonetheless, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) could be in position to strike provincewide before September. President Paul Elliott says a major issue is a proposal to increase class sizes, while Education Minister Liz Sandals says class sizes are not on the table.

Ms. Sandals said this week she won't speculate about September, but she said a lot can be accomplished in three months of bargaining.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is in a provincewide strike position now.

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ETFO teachers are currently on a work-to-rule job action and are adding incremental service withdrawals, with the next level starting Monday. Mr. Hammond said the union won't accept contract proposals that would "micromanage" teachers' prep time and remove some of their control of student diagnostic testing.

"Any actions that we take from now into the fall would be a co-ordinated provincewide action," union president Sam Hammond said.

Outlawing the OSSTF's approach may have helped up the ante for future strikes, said Brendan Sweeney, who teaches in the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University. That ruling clarified the province's new two-tier bargaining system, perhaps discouraging unions from smaller, targeted strikes.

"I wonder if that can be perceived as a challenge: 'If you're going to go on strike, make it a province strike, and then we'll sort something out,'" he said. "And that would be extremely disruptive, and that would be a September-October thing."

Ontario's teachers unions have more in common these days than ever, partly as a result of newly harmonized bargaining, Mr. Sweeney said.

"Working conditions are relatively similar compared to 20 years ago across Catholic boards, between elementary and secondary teachers," he said.

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Carol Jolin, who represents francophone teachers as president of the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, said his union is still negotiating but is also asking its members for a strike mandate in a vote next week. The move was prompted by the slow pace of negotiations, he said.

It's the union's first-ever province-wide strike vote, necessitated by the fact that it is now negotiating centrally, said Mr. Jolin.

"The full strike is the last resort for us," he said. "But at this point, it is really hard to predict."

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