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Ontario Premier Wynne open to back-to-work legislation to end teachers strike

Teachers on strike rally outside of Queen's Park in Toronto on Thursday, May 14, 2015. A hearing at the Ontario Labour Relations Board on the legality of the strikes by teachers in Durham, Peel and Rainbow (Sudbury) districts began Thursday morning.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Premier Kathleen Wynne says she's ready to send striking Ontario teachers back to work, but two processes that could end the strikes look set to stretch into next week.

"I will take whatever action I need to take to get the students back to school as quickly as possible," Ms. Wynne said Thursday after an unrelated event.

Asked if her action could include back-to-work legislation, she replied: "If that's what we have to do."

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However, any end to the strikes – outside of a bargained resolution – hinges on two decisions by different arms of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and those decisions are going slowly.

First, board chair Bernard Fishbein will rule next week at the earliest on the legality of the three walkouts. And a separate ruling from the Education Relations Commission could open a path for the province to enact back-to-school legislation, but its timeline is unclear.

Pointing to picket signs, media interviews and conversations with striking teachers, the affected school boards have accused the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation of staging the three strikes in order to put pressure on the province-wide contract talks, which they argue isn't allowed under new two-tier bargaining legislation.

Arguments wrapped up Thursday at the OLRB hearing.

"I will get you a decision as fast as possible," Mr. Fishbein said, acknowledging that every day he spends writing the ruling is another day students are out of school.

Monday will mark the beginning of the sixth week off for Durham district public high-school students, a Sudbury-area strike is entering its fifth week, and a strike in Peel district is going into its fourth week, so as many as 70,000 students are affected.

Mr. Fishbein declined a request to provide a quick "bottom line" ruling and follow up later with the logic behind it, saying he needed the chance to lay out his reasoning and put "substance" into the ruling.

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Both the union and school board representatives said the delay was frustrating but reasonable, since Mr. Fishbein's decision will change how the legislation is interpreted in the future.

"I understand where he's coming from, because this is a new law," said Pierre Côté, general secretary of the OSSTF. "He's going to want to make sure that he gets it right, and you know, he's going to want to write out his decision because of the potential consequences of it and because it likely will be looked at for years to come."

Michael Barrett, chair of the Durham District School Board and also the representative for all Ontario school boards as head of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said the timeline is "longer than anyone expected."

Usually, illegal-strike hearings take a single day, and the process is designed to be quick because they're considered emergencies for the employer. However, this ruling will also affect educational labour relations across the province, Mr. Barrett said.

"Win or lose, it is far better to have a robust process that encourages a negotiated solution, and determining the boundaries of the process is a critical component," he said.

If Mr. Fishbein finds the strikes illegal, he could give the teachers' union two possible remedies. One is to start the process of a new strike at the provincial level, legal notice for which would take roughly three weeks. The other is to agree to a moratorium on the three local strikes, with teachers spending as much time back in the classroom as they spent on the picket lines before they can walk out again, this time over unquestionably local issues.

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As for the Education Relations Commission ruling, Education Minister Liz Sandals announced last Friday that she would seek advice from the commission about whether the school year in the three striking districts could be in jeopardy. A spokeswoman for the commission could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Ms. Wynne said she's only waiting for word from the commission, a five-member body appointed by ‎the cabinet, to end the strike.

‎"They make a recommendation, and then we would take action," she said.

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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