TORONTO - Ontario teachers swarmed the front lawn of the legislature Tuesday for a massive protest of a controversial bill that would freeze their wages and cut benefits to battle the province's $15-billion deficit.
The outraged instructors said they want to teach the provincial Liberals a lesson: they can't trample on their rights in order to solve Ontario's financial problems.
"I am concerned about the approach the government has taken to dealing with a fiscal issue that was of their own making, not the making of public-sector unions," said Bill Betz, a teacher of 22 years.
Three unions representing about 45,000 teachers and school workers agreed to a two-year framework agreement with the province, which the government is now trying to impose on all the others.
But three unions representing about 191,000 workers are fighting it.
Members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario gathered at Queen's Park, some brandishing signs saying "Why Are Teachers Paying for McGuinty's Mistake?"
Union members and teachers took to the stage to voice their concerns over the government's behaviour, drawing steady cheers from the crowd and angry shouts of the word "shame" at the mere mention of Premier Dalton McGuinty's name.
Angela Lancelle, an elementary school teacher, said the bill tramples on collective bargaining rights.
"If we don't fight for that right for our union, what's it going to do to other unions, to other workers, if we can't maintain the rights that we have negotiated over the years?" she said.
"Our main concern and focus is for our students. That has never changed. That has never wavered. We are just asking for the respect we deserve."
The Liberals are bullying tens of thousands of teachers and education workers by trying to force new contracts on them, said NDP MP Olivia Chow.
"I know you as teachers every day teach the kids to work together not to bully," she told the crowd.
"You are putting our kids' education first. You deserve a medal of respect. You should not be legislated."
While the enormous crowd loudly condemned the bill outside Queen's Park, McGuinty was forced to defend the bill inside the legislature.
The self-described "education premier" has taken a hit in his effort to curb spending, alienating the very group that's helped him hang on to power for nine years.
But teachers can't get a pay hike, because the money is needed to expand full-day kindergarten and avoid larger class sizes, he said.
"We can't afford that right now," McGuinty said during question period. "We're not prepared to do that, and I think teachers understand that."
But the fight between teachers and the legislation isn't about the wage freeze, said New Democrat Peter Tabuns, whose party opposes the bill.
"We're not looking for a pay increase but we're looking for a fair deal," he said.
Neither the premier nor Education Minister Laurel Broten seemed willing to go out and talk to teachers face-to-face.
Asked whether she was afraid to face them, Broten said she has talked to teachers "on many occasions."
"My message to teachers has been consistent, has been loud and clear," she said.
"We appreciate the work that you do. You do important work. We are simply asking at this point in time that we see a pause in terms of pay increase, that we have to make choices, that we have to put our students first."
The real purpose of the bill isn't to rein in spending or prevent labour disruption in the province's schools, but to divert attention from the government's embarrassments, critics said.
McGuinty is trying to change the channel from scandals like Ontario's troubled air ambulance service — which is currently under a criminal probe — and the $190-million bill for cancelling a gas plant in the last election to save Liberal seats, said Tabuns.
The teachers' bill is meant to distract voters with a non-existent crisis in schools to win two byelections that could give them a majority government, he said.
"Is the government ready to stop playing politics and work to get a solution that actually works for students, their parents and a public that's fed up with paying the price for this government's quest for a majority?" Tabuns asked McGuinty in the legislature.
The Liberals are playing up the issue in their byelection campaigns, asking voters to "vote for stability in our schools" on Sept. 6.
The bill would force teachers to take three unpaid days off, halve the number of annual sick days to 10, and end the practice of banking unused sick days to be cashed out at retirement.
It would also grant the government the power to ban strikes and lockouts for at least two years.
The bill will likely become law with the Progressive Conservatives' help, but the NDP are questioning why the Liberals are trying to ram it through the legislature by the end of the week.
The Liberals called the legislature back early to introduce the bill, saying they had to stop the automatic rollover of teachers' contracts on Sept. 1, which would grant pay raises and sick days over the year that the province can no longer afford.
But their legislation is retroactive to Sept. 1, which means there's no rush to get it passed, the NDP said. And there's no threat of job action that would jeopardize the start of the school, since the unions aren't taking strike votes until mid-September.
Broten failed to get unanimous consent Tuesday to hold the final vote without debate.
Despite teachers' decision to rally against the bill, they say the students have and always will be their first priority.
"We have and we will always put students first," said Penny Huttelin, an educational worker.
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