As elementary teachers prepare to walk off the job on Friday, a hearing into whether they are staging an illegal strike continued late into the night.
The Ontario government asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to declare that the one-day protest by teachers is an illegal strike. But by late Thursday night, the board was still hearing legal arguments. The government is facing the closing of elementary schools for the second time this academic year.
"Somewhere in the neighbourhood of a million children won't be going to school," Robert Charney, a lawyer for the education ministry, told the hearing.
Mr. Charney argued that the one-day protest is illegal under Bill 115, the controversial legislation that bans teachers from striking.
"When teachers take a day of protest, it results in the closure of schools," he said. "We know that that's a strike."
Lawyers representing the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario argued at the hearing that the protest is not an illegal strike. They said the courts are the proper forum to deal with the matter.
But labour board chairman Bernard Fishbein said he is not prepared to refer the matter to the courts, where a hearing would not take place until September.
ETFO lawyer Howard Goldblatt said there are no plans by elementary teachers to hold further days of protest. He suggested that relations between teachers and the government could improve when a new Liberal leader is chosen this month.
"We are hoping there will be a fundamental sea change in the way the government addresses the sector," Mr. Goldblatt said.
Mr. Fishbein said ETFO's pledge not to stage further protests is based on the hope that Premier Dalton McGuinty's successor will review Bill 115.
"I have no way of knowing whether that is an overly optimistic assessment or not," Mr. Fishbein said.
Teachers are angry with the government for introducing Bill 115, which set a Dec. 31 deadline for bargaining, and enabled the province to impose a contract last week.
Elementary and high school teachers have withdrawn their participation in sports teams and clubs, with union leaders indicating these activities could be withheld until the fall of 2014, the duration of the contract.
High school teachers also plan to walk off the job on Jan. 16.
Mr. McGuinty appealed to elementary teachers earlier on Thursday to resolve their differences with his government outside the classroom and ignore their union leaders' calls to walk off the job.
"I understand that we have some differences. I respect their right to give expression to those differences," Mr. McGuinty said. "Let's leave the students out of it."
Mr. McGuinty also suggested that the militant stand of OETF president Sam Hammond might not necessarily reflect the views of his members, who want to "give their all" to students.
"I think executives have to be careful that they don't allow a gap to grow between them and their thinking and where teachers are on the front lines," he said. "I think teachers on the front lines want to teach. They want to give their best to students."