TORONTO - Premier Dalton McGuinty says he won't block planned one-day strikes by Ontario public elementary teachers.
The self-described "education premier" said his government won't use a controversial new anti-strike law to stop the walkouts, scheduled to begin next week, because the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario is giving parents at least three-days notice.
So long as the strikes last only one day, his government is prepared to let it go, McGuinty said Thursday.
"I understand this will be an inconvenience for parents as they make special arrangements, and it is regrettable for students to miss any time learning, even a day," he said in a statement.
"However, a legal one-day strike action does not warrant the government's intervention."
McGuinty was echoing the comments of Education Minister Laurel Broten, who said the government will allow legal one-day strikes to occur in all school boards if 72-hours notice is provided.
If the strikes extend beyond a day, the government has already prepared the necessary legal documents to end it, Broten said.
Elementary school teachers in the Avon Maitland and Ontario North East school boards have said they will stage a one-day strike on Monday.
Their counterparts in the Toronto District School Board — the largest in the country with about 550 schools — will be in a legal position to strike that day. But ETFO has promised to provide three-days' notice to parents before teachers walk off the job.
ETFO president Sam Hammond said his members have the legal right to strike, no matter what Broten says.
"Contrary to what the minister says, those strikes could last one, two, five, 10 days, whatever we decided to implement under the Ontario Labour Relations Act," he said.
Hammond maintained that his union is implementing one-day rotating strikes in schools across the province starting next week.
Asked if ETFO is ruling out strikes that last longer than one day, Hammond said: "I'm ruling nothing out. We always keep all of our options open, not knowing what situations may be ahead of us."
The union says the walkouts are in protest of the new legislation, which gives the government the power to stop strikes and impose a collective agreement if it doesn't like what the union and local boards negotiate. It can also prohibit specific job action.
Under the new law, teachers have until Dec. 31 to negotiate deals with school boards. They must be similar to the one the Liberals struck with English Catholic teachers in the summer, which froze the wages of most teachers and cut benefits, such as the banking of sick days that can be cashed out at retirement.
Four unions are taking the cash-strapped government to court over the law, arguing it's unconstitutional and violates collective bargaining rights.
But the Liberals, who brought back the legislature early to push Bill 115 through, said it's necessary to freeze public-sector pay and eliminate the province's $14.4-billion deficit.
The Progressive Conservatives have been urging Broten to use her legislative hammer to "re-impose some semblance of order" in schools.
"Parents are now going to have to scramble to get daycare for their kids — maybe have to stay home from the job — kids are going to miss out on their education," said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.
"Every minute, every dollar spent on having to get a babysitter or a daycare, that's on the Ontario Liberals' heads. They had an opportunity to stop these strikes, they've run away from their responsibilities."
When asked what will happen to children whose parents may not be able to find or afford child care within three days, Broten stuck to her message that she understands it will be an "inconvenience" to parents.
"We have chosen a path where we will tolerate for one day lawful strike activity allowing teachers to express themselves and finding balance for our government to respond and live within our fiscal means," she said.
The New Democrats want to repeal the legislation and restart negotiations with the teachers' unions.
"When they came forward with this bill in the summer — this unconstitutional bill, this reckless bill — they said they needed it to make sure schools opened on time and stayed open right through the school year," said NDP education critic Peter Tabuns.
"Clearly, that's not happening."
McGuinty said he's "disappointed" that ETFO is going ahead with one-day strikes, which put "students squarely in the middle" of their dispute with his government.
"Just as students and parents have the right to stability in their schools, teachers have the opportunity to strike when there is no collective agreement in place," he said. "We need to strike a reasonable balance."
The Liberals' relationship with public sector unions — who poured their resources into helping them get re-elected three times — has soured considerably since the passage of Bill 115, which the Tories supported.
Job action among elementary and high school teachers has been escalating for months, from the initial withdrawal of volunteer activities — such as coaching sports teams — to skipping certain tasks, such as administering standardized tests, and keeping report card comments to a minimum.