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Labour board ruling quashes provincewide teachers' protests

Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario President Sam Hammond speaks at a news conference in Toronto, Jan. 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

An Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) ruling handed down before dawn Friday quashed two provincewide protests by public elementary and high school teachers.

The OLRB issued its ruling around 3:30 a.m. declaring a protest planned for Friday by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) was “unlawful.” Shortly after the decision was released, the union announced it had scrapped its protest and ordered members to show up for work.

Later Friday morning, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said it was scrubbing plans to hold a similar protest next Wednesday.

Despite the ruling against the union, ETFO president Sam Hammond said he’s still “optimistic in terms of the points we’ve made over the past 10 months about the mishandling of this particular file by the current government and the current minister of education.”

Hammond said union leadership will be hammering out next steps over the next few days.

“We will continue to look at all of our options to stand up for our rights,” he said.

OSSTF president Ken Coran said his members may be willing to return to extracurricular activities if they see some movement from the government. He’d like to see Education Minister Laurel Broten make good on her promise to repeal Bill 115 — the legislation that allowed the government to impose a contract on teachers.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said.

“I think there is an answer and I think we can end this if calmer heads prevail.”

Unions are also awaiting a meeting with the new Ontario Liberal leader, who will be elected later this month.

Parents left scrambling

All GTA public boards announced elementary classes would go ahead Friday, reversing earlier decisions to close their schools. Transportation services, however, in Toronto, York, Simcoe and parts of cottage country were cancelled.

The last-minute change of plans left thousands of parents across the region frustrated, many of whom were forced to scramble to find alternative childcare on word earlier this week that there would be no class.

“In the rush of events, there may still be some students who miss a day of learning because parents and school board officials went to bed last night not knowing exactly what to expect,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said later Friday morning. “The threatened job action introduced a lot of uncertainty into the lives of young families today. I want to thank parents for their patience and resilience in the face of this uncertainty.”

Some parents had mixed reactions to the development.

“I’m in support of the teachers,” a mother named Barb said. “I feel that it’s unfortunate that they were ordered to go back.”

“I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed that it had to come to this,” a father named Esteban said.

The protests were announced after Broten announced the imposed contract on Jan. 3. The unions claim Bill 115 violated their rights to collective bargaining and have filed court challenges, which Coran said could take years.

Courts to decide

McGuinty said, “This [OLRB] ruling now puts the remaining questions around Bill 115 squarely in the sphere of the courts. The courts will rule on the constitutionality of our legislation.”

Shortly after the OLRB ruling came down, Hammond said: “We respect the OLRB’s decision and will comply fully with the ruling,” and informed his members they had to report to work.

Broten also told elementary teachers they must report to work Friday.

“This is a very important ruling for parents, students and teachers. We expect teachers to be in their classrooms this morning to continue the important work they do every day,” she said in a statement.

McGuinty brought the issue to the OLRB, seeking to stop what he called the “illegal strike activity.” The union called it a “political protest” and said it’s permitted under the Charter.

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

Broten promised to repeal Bill 115 as a “sign of good faith” on the same day she used it to force a contract.

Last month, ETFO members held rolling one-day strikes to protest the legislation.

The imposed contract includes a wage freeze, 10 sick days — down from 20 — and grandfathering out the practice of banking unused sick days. It was based on an agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and Ontario’s French teachers.

The province has reached tentative agreements with two education unions — the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) — and reached deals with 65 of 270 school boards.

The government-imposed contract expires in August 2014.