TORONTO — There hasn’t been another Canadian teachers’ strike quite like this one.
Ontario’s teachers, all of whom are currently engaged in either rotating strikes or work-to-rule campaigns, are enjoying unusually strong public support, said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at London, Ont.’s Western University who studies industrial relations and labour issues.
“I think teachers can very easily start feeling embattled in these disputes,” she told HuffPost Canada. “And in the past there wasn’t always support for teachers.”
Public sector strikes are public relations battles more than anything else, Weststar said, so winning public opinion is key.
“It may be unfortunate to say … but many times it does come down to power and influence. It’s not necessarily about the merits of an argument.”
The teachers’ disagreements with Premier Doug Ford’s government over class sizes and online learning aren’t so complex that they couldn’t be resolved through bargaining, Weststar said. But the dispute is dragging on.
“For the teachers, they’re trying to move the government away from mandatory online learning, from the increase in class sizes ... and they’re not prepared to concede,” Weststar said.
“The government has introduced a wage violation bill [that limits raises for public workers] and they’ve come in with proposals for fairly dramatic changes [to education] and they’re not prepared to back away from those right now.”
“As long as that’s happening, there’s no resolution, right?”
Other public sector strikes in the past have been resolved with bargaining, arbitration and back-to-work legislation, but Weststar said a solution using one of these tactics doesn’t seem imminent in Ontario.
Good old-fashioned bargaining
In 2014, a dispute between the British Columbia government and teachers was resolved with a six-day marathon bargaining session, but only after the teachers’ strike stretched into its fourth month. One school year ended early and another started late because of the strikes.
The teachers ended up capitulating on some demands after public support for their action eroded. When rotating strikes began in May of that year, the teachers were supported by about 41 per cent of the public with 30 per cent backing the government. But by August, the numbers evened out with 36 per cent supporting the teachers and 35 per cent supporting the government.
In Ontario this week, nearly twice as many residents are supporting the teachers as Ford’s government.
Sam Hammond, president of Ontario’s elementary teachers’ union, said he wants to reach an agreement through bargaining but doesn’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.
“As of today, I don’t see how it’s possible because the government is not setting dates and we’re not at the table,” he told HuffPost by phone Thursday as he drove back to Toronto after spending the day on picket lines.
The government maintains that it’s ready to bargain but the unions are the ones resisting.
Labour disputes can be resolved with arbitration, where an independent third party helps two sides come to an agreement. The arbitrator sometimes sets a deadline for negotiations, after which they’ll impose a deal that tries to balance both parties’ demands.
Arbitration is sometimes forced as part of back-to-work legislation. Ford’s government sent a dispute between Ontario Power Generation and the Power Workers’ Union to arbitration with legislation in 2018 when the government also blocked the union from striking.
Weststar said arbitrators often maintain the status quo in collective agreements, so they’re unlikely to settle disputes like the ones at play in Ontario. Class sizes and online learning are more complex than issues like salary, she said.
“Arbitrators aren’t in the business of drastic change ... It’s quite outside of the arbitrators’ skill set, frankly, but also out of their professional interest to be putting binding rulings in on issues that are so complicated like that.”
Because arbitrators often keep things the way they are, the government could lose its fight on class sizes and online learning if the dispute goes that route, Weststar said.
The government could also force teachers back to work and impose a contract with legislation, Hammond said, or it could use legislation to end the strike and send the negotiations to arbitrator in the meantime.
“There’s a whole bunch of ways that that could work,” he said.
Ford has said that forcing teachers back to work with legislation is a “last step.”
Weststar said it’s unlikely that the government will force teachers to end rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns, but that could change if they escalate to full-time, province-wide strikes.
“Governments that impose back-to-work legislation come under political fire ... The opposition parties will immediately start accusing the government of not allowing collective bargaining to take place,” she said.
“But I think if the teachers ... all went to a full withdrawal of services, I don’t suspect it would be very long before back-to-work legislation.”