01/10/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario teachers await ruling on political protest scheduled for Friday

TORONTO - Public elementary school teachers across Ontario are waiting to hear whether they're legally entitled to engage in a day of political protest on Friday.

Lawyers representing the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario are arguing their case before the province's Labour Relations Board mere hours before thousands of workers are due to stage a one-day walkout.

The protest comes in response to the Liberal government's decision to impose two-year contracts on the province's public education workers.

ETFO and other supporters argue the teachers have every right to mount a protest under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but critics maintain any action would be illegal under the terms of the new contracts.

Many school boards have announced widespread school closures in anticipation of the protest.

Thursday's hearings were expected to stretch into the evening, but board chair Bernard Fishbein has already declined an ETFO request to defer the matter to the courts.

Earlier in the day, the planned protest drew sharp condemnation from Ontario's outgoing premier.

Dalton McGuinty said many public elementary and high school teachers don’t want to follow their unions' edict to walk out of the classroom.

Even though there's a wall of angry teachers protesting at recent Liberal events, they're not a "good sampling of teacher opinion," he said after touring a greenhouse in Newmarket, north of Toronto.

"My sense is that most teachers want to be in the classroom, and they want to be participating in extracurricular activities as well," he said. "I mean, that's why they got into teaching in the first place."

The government is seeking injunctions to stop the scheduled walkouts. The papers have not yet been filed for the high school teachers, who are currently planning to stage a protest on Jan. 16.

Unions representing public elementary and high school teachers said McGuinty provoked the scheduled walkouts by imposing new contracts on their 126,000 members with a new anti-strike law that's come under legal fire.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario argues the action planned for Friday is not a strike, but a one-day political protest that’s protected under the Constitution. The majority of their members also voted for the protest.

But the premier insists the strike is unlawful, since those teachers are no longer in a legal strike position.

McGuinty said he doesn't believe that teachers want to get into legal trouble, no matter what the unions say.

"I believe many of their teachers are saying, 'OK, McGuinty's put in place this Bill 115, we have contracts that are in place for the next couple of years. Let's get back to work,'" he said.

Teachers can protest before or after school, on the weekend, or on a statutory holiday, McGuinty said. Just not during school hours.

Education Minister Laurel Broten imposed collective agreements Jan. 3 on public school teachers and education workers, which cut their benefits and froze most of their wages to battle the province's $14.4-billion deficit.

She promised to repeal the law _ which four unions are challenging in court _ by the end of the month.

Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod heaped harsh criticism on ETFO and its president, Sam Hammond, while not sparing McGuinty for his role in the bruising battle.

"I find it highly cynical that a labour leader would put tens of thousands of young students out in the cold just for the sake of making a political point to a regime that is going to be gone in a week and a half," she said.

"Sam Hammond and Dalton McGuinty are not hurting one another. They are hurting four- and five- and six- and seven-year-old students who want to be in class."

Under Ontario's labour laws, engaging in illegal strike activity can carry a penalty of up to $2,000 per person and $25,000 for a trade union.

McGuinty appealed to school boards to find a way to keep their schools open, but said he won’t compensate parents for last-minute childcare.

It's the latest twist in the labour drama that's engulfed the Liberals, who have alienated a powerful group that’s helped them stay in power for nine years.

With just two weeks to go before his successor is chosen, it wasn't the swan song Ontario's self-described "education premier" had in mind.

"Well, the teachers have kept my exit interesting for me, I’ll say that much," McGuinty said, chuckling.

He defended his education record, saying he's worked with teachers over the past nine years to shrink class sizes, hire more educators, raise graduation rates and test scores.

"So we're having a difficult _ I called it a rough patch," he said.

"Sometimes we're so close to the painting, we can't stand back and look at it in an expansive way. We've done a lot of good things when it comes to education in Ontario. We've made some tremendous progress. And I think any teacher would tell you that."