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Teachers gathered in large numbers in front of the Minister of Education Offices on Bay Street in Toronto on Jan. 15, 2013. The peaceful, but loud demonstration, helped along by a Samba band, blocked all lanes of traffic on Bay Street during part of the rush hour.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A ruling from the Ontario Labour Relations Board has made it clear that the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) was doing more than just "advising" its members not to take part in extracurricular activities after the provincial government imposed a contract on teachers. The board has ruled that the ETFO's members engaged in an illegal strike action, and that the union encouraged them to do so. Hopefully the ruling will put an end to future such actions.

The teachers, who began their strike action last fall, were not in a legal strike position after Bill 115 came into effect in January. At that point the union issued "advice" to the effect that elementary school teachers should continue to refuse to take part in voluntary and extracurricular activities. The so-called advice meant students spent a second semester without field trips or after-class sports activities and clubs.

Two smaller school boards filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board in January contending that local union officials had gone further than issuing mere advice, and had explicitly told teachers not to take part in voluntary and extracurricular activities. The Labour Relations Board agreed, pointing to e-mails that contradict the ETFO's repeated claims that it limited itself to a counselling role. Here are two of the e-mails quoted in the ruling:

"In accordance with the ETFO Executive motion, members should not participate in voluntary/extra-curricular activities";

"Field Trips/Excursions/Clubs/Teams/Program Enhancements such as electives: – These are voluntary activities and members should not participate in them - full stop"

The ETFO argued the e-mails were not a representative sample, and that they were simply wrong. The Labour Relations Board agreed that the e-mails did not constitute "a Directive within the meaning of the ETFO Constitution," and that there was no threat of discipline in the event of non-compliance.

But the Labour Relations Board did rule, and very carefully so, that the withdrawal of voluntary and extracurricular activities constituted an illegal strike. And it said that, at a minimum, the e-mails are proof "that ETFO, its officers, officials or agents 'supported' or 'encouraged' this activity." It is a violation of the Labour Relations Act for a union to "counsel, procure, support or encourage an unlawful strike," the Board noted.

The ruling is a vindication for parents who knew their children's education was being held hostage by a union engaged in a political dispute with the government, but couldn't get anyone to admit it. As the Labour Relations Board noted in its ruling, the ETFO's beef was not with its employer (the school board) but with the Liberal government and its back-to-work legislation. Said the Board: "What the ETFO has chosen to do is encourage their members to express their dissatisfaction with those political decisions of the Government through their relationship with their employer by refusing to do activities ... in the obvious hope that those employers, or more likely, the parents of students attending the schools of their employer, will pressure the Government."

It's nice to see it in black and white. It's even better that a precedent has been set that could limit the ability of teachers' unions to use students as pawns in the future.

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