Another Monday, another strike: that's been the pattern for the last two weeks at Ontario public high schools, with a third strike possible this coming Monday.
But some of the school boards facing work stoppages by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation say they don't know why they were singled out, and that getting teachers back to work is mostly out of their hands.
"Our students and their families are caught in a dispute that is really between the OSSTF and the province," said Doreen Dewar, the chair of Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury, where secondary teachers began striking Monday.
Under a new collective bargaining process passed into law last year, the boards have only relatively small items to settle with the union locals, including job assessments and working conditions. Questions with significant financial implications, including salaries and class sizes, are reserved for the "central" bargaining table, where the union sits down with the province and the provincial association of school boards.
The union and school boards accuse each other of slowing down or abandoning local talks intentionally, with the union saying a particularly sluggish pace in some places forced it to strike. But both sides also agree that, intentions aside, the local talks aren't likely to be resolved until the central talks are.
"Those local strikes really are about putting pressure on the local tables," said Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president Paul Elliott. "And I think hopefully, maybe, if there's something that happens at the central table that helps those along, I think everybody benefits from that."
The first strike began at Durham schools on April 20, and the third could be at Peel Regional School Board, the country's second-biggest, as of May 4. The union picked those three boards months ago, along with four more that don't yet have set strike dates, in Waterloo, Ottawa, Thunder Bay and Halton District. Mr. Elliott named the seven at the union's annual general meeting in February.
Ms. Dewar said she read a transcript of his speech and saw Rainbow District's name listed.
"I was shaking," she said. "I can't find a rhyme or reason in why … I can't see a pattern of why these seven were picked."
Ms. Dewar said she had felt "extremely optimistic" about bargaining in Rainbow District, with four local negotiating sessions in April. But the talks ended a few days ahead of the strike date.
The president of Rainbow's union local, James Clyke, accused the board of taking part in a cross-province strategy "to frustrate bargaining at local tables."
The chair of the Peel Regional School Board, Janet McDougald, said Peel talks have been going well, with about 75 per cent of the local issues already resolved. However, that won't necessarily avert a strike, she said.
"Certainly we feel targeted at this point," said Ms. McDougald. "We really need the central table to resolve all those issues before a local agreement can be finalized."
In a statement, Education Minister Liz Sandals said the new bargaining process was passed after "extensive consultation" with both boards and unions, and that under its terms, local strikes shouldn't be used to put pressure on the central process.
"The act sets out a two-tier bargaining process that clearly outlines that local strikes can occur over local issues and provincial strikes occur over central issues," she said.
Mr. Elliott said central talks are moving slowly. Both sides are willing to negotiate, but no talks are scheduled, partly because the province's bargaining team is also meeting with the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which has its own strike date of May 10.
Unlike the OSSTF, the elementary teachers' union has laid the groundwork for a strike that could be provincewide or at any combination of boards, said ETFO president Sam Hammond. The ETFO has begun legally clearing the way to strike over central negotiations, giving it more options.