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Striking public elementary school teachers protest outside Premier Dalton McGuinty's constituency office in Ottawa.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

York Region has emerged as an epicentre of the elementary teachers' dispute, with a walkout set to shutter schools Thursday at the first large board in the Greater Toronto Area.

Teachers at the board, north of Toronto, have made Bill 115, a controversial piece of legislation that dictates the terms of their contracts and restricts their ability to strike, the rallying cry for protests. High-school teachers there ignited provincewide job action by rejecting a government-approved deal drafted by their local union leadership. It was a surprise move from a board that is often upheld as a model to others in the province – students are some of the most diverse and high achieving in Ontario, according to standardized test scores.

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario

York Region's teachers were among the first elementary school bargaining units to reach a legal strike position and their leader, David Clegg, is a former provincial union president known for taking hard-line stands. In the 2008-09 round of negotiations with then-education-minister Kathleen Wynne, now a front-runner for the Liberal leadership, Mr. Clegg walked away from the bargaining table and threatened to hold a strike vote. But, in the end, the union accepted a deal in which elementary school teachers received lower wages than other teacher unions.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation

York's bargaining unit for high-school teachers was one of the first two to reach a deal with their school boards, leading many to expect peace across the education sector. More deals followed as Education Minister Laurel Broten praised York Region for leading the way.

But, in a surprise move, York Region's members rejected the deal in a ratification vote, throwing weeks of bargaining and hope for labour peace out the window. Though the local union leaders had negotiated a deal that restored some sick days and cut back on mandatory unpaid professional development days, members found the province's tactics unpalatable.

The rejection sparked a series of provincewide revolts against local leaderships and full-blown protest against Bill 115.

Now what?

The elementary teachers' union is widely expected to change its strategy for the last week before the Christmas holidays. Union leaders could decide to direct larger boards – Toronto, Peel and Hamilton, for example – to walk out on the same day, to spend more than one day on the picket line or send teachers who have already walked out for a second day of picketing. Those strategies would push the government to use its powers under Bill 115 to end the strike. The teachers' unions have launched a court challenge of Bill 115, arguing that it infringes on their rights to collective bargaining. Union leaders have warned that the fight with the minority Liberal government would continue until Bill 115 was repealed.

While Ms. Broten has legislative powers to block teachers from striking, she cannot force them to resume unpaid duties, such as coaching sports teams, overseeing student councils and tutoring pupils after class. Union leaders have told The Globe and Mail that teachers could withdraw these voluntary services for as long as two years, when the terms of the government's imposed contract expire in the fall of 2014.