Hundreds of thousands of Ontario elementary public-school students will be the next casualties of labour strife radiating across the province, as the union representing grade-school teachers prepares to take strike action on Monday.
There are 817,000 elementary pupils in the public system. Already 72,000 high-school students are not in the classroom because their teachers are on strike – and so by Monday about 900,000 students will be caught up in the turmoil in the province's education system.
It is not clear yet whether the 76,000 teachers, members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), will walk out or adopt a work-to-rule strategy.
Sam Hammond, ETFO president, told The Globe and Mail that he will make public the type of strike action on Friday.
Regardless, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals told reporters Tuesday that she does not see a reason why the union is threatening to disrupt schools other than "it seems to be a general desire to have a strike."
Mr. Hammond said his members have been bargaining for eight months and have achieved nothing. He accuses the province of trying to micromanage the teachers on issues, including taking control of teachers' preparation time and decisions over testing of pupils.
"We are just not prepared to let that happen," he said. "The teachers who are in the classroom know exactly what kind of testing should be implemented and their professional judgment should be respected on that."
He said his union "did not have a master plan of going on strike, but after eight months we find ourselves in a position where we feel there is no alternative because there is absolutely no respect … or movement on the other side of the table."
The two sides have not even spoken about salaries or other monetary issues, he said. Instead, they have been arguing about issues such as allowing occasional teachers to have keys to unlock doors to classrooms. "We can't even get the government to discuss that in a responsible way," he said.
So far, the government is refusing to talk about legislating teachers back to work. Rather, Ms. Sandals and Premier Kathleen Wynne both emphasized the need to get back to the table.
"You know what I am not going to speculate on what may happen on Monday, on what may or may not happen in the weeks to come," Ms. Wynne told reporters at a brief news conference on Tuesday morning. "What I know is that we need to get those central deals. We are doing everything in our power to stay at the table, to bring people back to the table and to negotiate, and those conversations are ongoing."
Ms. Wynne was referring to the two-tier negotiating structure being used this time around. This is the first time that the province, school boards and teachers' unions have negotiated under new legislation passed last year. It divides the process into a parallel set of talks. Issues such as day-to-day working conditions are considered local and are negotiated between the teachers' local bargaining units and the school boards. The other issues, such as wages and class size, are negotiated at the so-called central table, which is where the province sits.
Mr. Hammond's union is adopting a different strategy than the high-school teachers' union, which has identified seven boards that could be affected by teachers' strikes. So far, teachers from three boards – Durham, Peel and Sudbury – are out. Teachers in Durham have been out the longest – they are in their third week.
Mike Barrett, the chair of the Durham board and president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association (OPSBA), is also a parent of a Grade 12 student. "With every single day we are not talking I get a little more worried [about the students losing their year]," he said.
Under legislation, his board could ask the Education Relations Commission for a ruling of "jeopardy." It would be triggered after the board determines that the students' year could be compromised or lost by a strike.
Mr. Barrett said his board is not there yet, although it is an "ongoing discussion." A jeopardy determination would act as advice to the government about how it should proceed, he said. In some cases, it could lead to back-to-work legislation.