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Ontario teachers threaten to walk out en masse after holidays

Toronto public elementary teachers and occasional teachers staged a one-day strike this Tuesday December 18 to continue sending the government a message that Bill 115 is severely impeding local collective bargaining.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's elementary teachers are vowing to walk out en masse after the Christmas holidays, shuttering every school, even as the province's Education Minister warned that any job action taken in the new year will be illegal.

As public-school teachers in eight school boards took to the streets Tuesday in the largest walkout the province has seen in more than 15 years, the head of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario threatened the worst was yet to come. A government-imposed contract that takes effect Jan. 1 would trigger a large-scale political protest by teachers.

"This is not going away," ETFO president Sam Hammond said in an interview Tuesday.

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But Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten said teacher contract terms, legislated under Bill 115, would automatically take effect Jan. 1, which would make any job action illegal.

"With a collective agreement in place, you're no longer in a legal strike position," Ms. Broten said. "It is something that causes me great concern, to think that there's an encouragement by union leadership to ask their members to undertake illegal activity and I would certainly encourage them not to do that."

Ms. Broten said there were "mechanisms" in place to penalize teachers if they engaged in an illegal strike. Penalties under Ontario's Labour Relations Act range from suing union leaders to taking disciplinary action against individual members.

Teachers are angry and frustrated with Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that dictates the terms of their contract and restricts their ability to strike.

More than half of the province's elementary school teachers, including those in Toronto, Peel and Durham, staged one-day job actions Tuesday, the largest in a series of rotating strikes across the province. Such a large-scale walkout has not been seen since teachers rebelled against Conservative premier Mike Harris in the 1990s.

On Tuesday, teachers wearing placards and singing strike-themed versions of Christmas carols picketed outside schools and strategic sites, such as the offices of the Ministry of Education, the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board.

"Any teacher you talk to here will tell you this is not about a wage freeze. Every single person agreed to a wage freeze," Laura Roberts, a teacher at Kensington Public School, said outside the Education Ministry in Toronto. "This is about people's rights getting taken away and things we've worked really hard for over the years that are going to be stripped without our consent."

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Elementary-school teachers voted in favour of a one-day political protest – essentially an illegal, or wildcat strike – when Ms. Broten invokes her powers under Bill 115. High-school teachers are voting on the same plan, and results are expected at the end of the week.

While the walkouts have been an inconvenience, parents and students are more concerned about the loss of extracurriculars. In September, teachers stopped coaching sports teams, overseeing clubs and offering students extra academic support after school.

Mr. Hammond warned that these voluntary services would continue to be withdrawn when school resumes in January.

"I don't see that stopping in the new year," Mr. Hammond said. Some leaders have even gone so far as to suggest that these activities could be withheld until the fall of 2014, the duration of the two-year government-imposed contract.

The Ontario Liberals have said that cutting teachers' paid sick days from 20 to 10, and delaying a pay grid that sees their salaries climb from about $40,000 to $90,000 over 10 years, was necessary in order to tackle a $14-billion provincial deficit while preserving job-generating programs such as caps on primary-class sizes and full-day kindergarten.

In an interview on Tuesday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath defended the teachers' ongoing protests, arguing that they have "very few things they have left at their disposal in terms of how to deal with the situation."

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While noting that even some teachers are struggling with the possibility of extending job action into January, Ms. Horwath appeared to suggest they wouldn't be to blame for further walkouts or curtailing of extracurricular activities. "If we end up there, then it'll be because the government's being stubborn, and they're not prepared to reopen the conversation," she said.

Ms. Horwath said that a government under her watch would repeal Bill 115, but was non-committal on the extent to which contracts that take effect on Jan. 1 could subsequently be repealed.

With reports from Jane Gerster, Jill Mahoney and Adam Radwanski

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