TORONTO - Ontario's governing Liberals say they're ready to respond to the threat of province-wide strikes by elementary teachers, but won't say when or if they'll force them back to work.
The province has the power under a controversial new law to stop strikes by teachers and lockouts, but Education Minister Laurel Broten won't say whether she'll employ that legislative hammer — just that she has it in her arsenal.
"My message to parents is, we have tools within the legislation," she said Thursday.
"We recognize and understand what parents' expectations are of us, and we are keeping a very close watch on what's taking place across the province."
Elementary teachers in a legal strike position are expected to walk off the job next month, escalating their job action just withdrawing from administrative duties.
The hope of negotiated settlements to end the labour strife in Ontario schools is growing dimmer, as the union representing public high school teachers also broke off all negotiations with school boards until further notice.
Parents will get 72-hours notice of strikes in elementary schools, said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. Currently, teachers in five school boards are in a legal strike position, but that will spread to all public schools over the next month.
It's not yet clear whether they'll be full strikes, rotating strikes or one-day walkouts. Hammond said the union hasn't made that decision yet.
But efforts to reach local agreements with school boards have reached a "standstill" over the last few weeks because the unpopular legislation places "rigid" restrictions on what a final agreement can look like, he said.
Few local agreements have been ratified by teachers, including those in the English Catholic system whose union reached a tentative agreement with the province in July, he said.
"We're prepared to implement and exercise all of our rights under the Ontario Labour Relations Act," Hammond said.
"So over the next about two-and-a-half weeks, all of our locals will be in a legal strike position."
The governing Liberals can stop the impending strikes by imposing a new collective agreement on teachers. They can also ban certain strike actions taken by teachers.
But Broten can also stop the strikes by repealing the unpopular legislation, Hammond said.
"Let us sit down at a table once that happens, with the fiscal realities on the table — put all options on the table — and allow us to determine an agreement that fits into those parameters," he said.
Broten would only say that she'll monitor the situation carefully to determine whether the government needs to act.
Talks with school boards and high school teachers were suspended Thursday, with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation saying Broten refused to approve a number of locally bargained deals.
The Ministry of Education decided the tentative agreements weren't "substantively identical" to a deal the province signed with English Catholic teachers — an agreement the province has held up as a template for other deals, the union said.
It froze the wages of most teachers and cut benefits, such as cutting sick days in half and stopping teachers from banking them to be cashed out at retirement.
Broten said she hasn't rejected any of the local deals reached by the union and school boards.
She issued a statement later on Thursday to say "at this point, my ministry has reviewed and deemed workable all of the tentative agreements that have been submitted." She also encourage the union to take those tentative agreements to ratification votes.
OSSTF said it's also cut off talks because teachers in York Region and Niagara rejected tentative agreements reached with their school boards.
The ratification vote of an agreement reached at Hamilton-Wentworth School Board will proceed on Friday, but all other scheduled votes have been put off until after Monday, it added.
That's when all bargaining unit leaders have been called to a special meeting where they'll outline their next steps.
The only way to defuse the crisis in schools is to repeal the legislation, said New Democrat Catherine Fife, the former president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.
"We didn’t need to be here, and school boards know that, teachers know that, parents know that," she said.
"The only way that we're going to reset this conversation is to repeal Bill 115 and restart the conversation."
The Progressive Conservatives, who helped the Liberals pass the legislation, said the government should use the full weight of the law to end the labour disruption.
"Dalton McGuinty is still the premier — lame duck that he may be — and he'd better step up and say what he's going to do or he's going to have a lot of angry parents on his hands and I don't blame them," said Conservative Peter Shurman.
"We're listening to people who are essentially telling this minister and this government where they can go."
But McGuinty — the self-described "education premier" — made no mention of the pending strikes or the labour battle with teachers on Thursday during a 28-minute speech on education in Ontario.