POLITICS
08/29/2019 14:50 EDT | Updated 08/30/2019 14:18 EDT

Teachers Might Strike In Ontario. Here's What You Need To Know.

The teachers’ unions aren’t big fans of Premier Doug Ford’s PC government.

Tijana Martin/Canadian Press
A crowd gathers at Queen's Park to protest the Progressive Conservative government's changes to education in Toronto on April 6, 2019.

When can Ontario teachers go on strike?

Elementary and secondary school teachers could be in a legal position to strike sometime in October. Both unions have said teachers will be at work for the month of September. 

However, if the union representing non-teaching staff votes to strike earlier, classes may be cancelled at some school boards.

The union that represents those workers, who are librarians, custodians, administrative workers, etc., has already sent an open letter to parents about the possibility of a labour disruption in September. This could be a strike, a rotating strike, or a “work-to-rule” action where workers refuse to do anything beyond the minimum requirements of their contract. 

That union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), is currently in conciliation with the government, which means it can kick off a 17-day countdown to a strike at any time. Bargaining would continue during those 17 days and if no deal is reached, a five-day notice is required before a strike begins. 

Union members get to vote on any possible job action before it begins. Local branches of the CUPE union will start holding votes Sept. 3. 

Watch: Premier Doug Ford says teachers strike no matter who’s in power. Story continues after video.

 

Elementary teachers are still bargaining with the government.

Negotiations have been “respectful” and progress is “slow but steady,” the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Sam Hammond told members in a speech Aug. 15. 

“Unfortunately, this is probably the calm before the storm,” he said. “Already, we are seeing clouds on the horizon.”

He referred to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative MPPs as “bullies” and said his members are prepared to stand up to them.

Unfortunately, this is probably the calm before the storm.ETFO president Sam Hammond

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) hasn’t started bargaining yet. The parties couldn’t agree on which issues should be settled at the central table and which should be settled at local tables, so they had to appeal to the Ontario Labour Board (OLB) for a decision, which is expected within a few weeks. Then the official bargaining process will begin. 

OSSTF president Harvey Bischof has told HuffPost Canada that a strike is possible sometime this fall. 

“Certainly it’s not our goal,” he said. “But it’s not something we’ve ruled out either.”

The rules of conciliation apply to the teachers’ unions, too, so parents can expect a minimum of 22 days’ notice if they need to find extra child care because of a strike.

Why do teachers want to go on strike?

All contracts for teachers and education workers are being renegotiated because they expire Aug. 31. 

The presidents of ETFO and OSSTF have been highly critical of Ford’s government. Both outlined their problems with the PC government’s policies in separate speeches to members on Aug. 15. 

Hammond took issue with the government’s changes to labour laws and refusal to commit to keeping full-day kindergarten.

Bischof said the government’s increases to class sizes and introduction of mandatory online courses will “devastate the education system.” School boards across the province have laid off dozens of teachers and cancelled classes by the hundreds, attributing it to PC spending cuts and fluctuations in enrolment. 

This government has broken everything it has touched.OSSTF president Harvey Bischof

When Bischof addressed members at the same conference a year ago, the PC government had only been in power for a few weeks. 

“The writing was on the wall. We knew what we were dealing with,” he said of that time.

The new government had:

  • Cancelled consultations for a new Indigenous curriculum,
  • Cancelled a $100 million fund for school repairs,
  • Cancelled the cap-and-trade pollution pricing system that would have provided funding to make schools more energy efficient,
  • Temporarily repealed the health and physical education curriculum.

“This government has broken everything it has touched,” Bischof said.

How long can teachers strike for?

There’s no way of knowing how long a strike or job action could last for, Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, told HuffPost. 

“Historically in the school board system, they don’t tend to last long.”

When her non-teaching workers did a work-to-rule action in 2015, it lasted between four and six weeks, Walton said.

High school teachers in Durham, Sudbury and Peel also walked off the job in 2015. The action was declared illegal after three weeks and teachers were forced back to work. 

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail via Canadian Press
Teachers walk the picket line outside Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, Ont. on April 28, 2015.

Ford’s government could force workers and teachers back to work with legislation, Walton said. That would require Ford to recall the legislature, which is currently on a five-month summer recess.

It’s not without precedent. Last summer, the premier recalled the legislature early to introduce a bill that slashed the number of councillors on Toronto City Council. He recalled MPPs again in December to stop power workers from going on strike. 

How many teachers are there in Ontario?

There are 160,000 teachers in Ontario’s publicly-funded school system, according to the Ontario Teachers’ Federation. That includes teachers in the province’s French and Catholic schools. 

CUPE also has 55,000 members who work in Ontario’s schools.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Ontario has 153,000 teachers. According to the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, that number is actually 160,000.