A one-day strike by Ontario’s public high school teachers could be the first of many such disruptions, the union representing them warned Wednesday during a walkout that left hundreds of thousands of students out of school.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which represents about 60,000 public high school teachers and support workers, said any future labour action would depend on the government’s actions following the flash strike.
“Certainly there’s a possibility of further disruption if we can’t get this government to move off its positions that erode the quality of education,” union president Harvey Bischof said.
“The only thing I can tell you with certainty is there would always be five days’ notice of any further action but up until then we have to gauge the government’s response,” he said, adding the union is ready to return to bargaining should the province bring forward new proposals.
The union said the government had not put forward any constructive proposals during the negotiation process.
Hundreds of people picketed outside the Toronto District School Board headquarters Wednesday morning, hoisting signs as they called for spending cuts to be reversed. The crowd cheered in response every time passing motorists honked their horns in solidarity.
Amma Adauko, a child and youth worker, said she was happy to see so many people out despite the chilly weather. “We need support, the class sizes are too big, the kids are stressed,” she said, adding further cuts would make an already difficult situation even worse.
Marc Copyto, a Toronto teacher, said he was “disappointed” that talks with the province had reached an impasse. “Quite frankly, teachers want to be in the classroom. We want to be teaching and engaging with students and we’re unfortunately in a position right now where we can’t do that,” he said.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce called the walkout “unacceptable” given that private mediation remains an option, and blamed the union for escalating the dispute.
“Every time our government has made significant, reasonable proposals in good faith to the OSSTF, not only have they rejected our proposals but actually neglected to advance any new proposals since the first day of bargaining commenced,” he said in the legislature during Question Period on Wednesday.
“They cannot outright reject every proposal of the government but not bring any new proposal to the table. The onus is on the OSSTF to bring forth a new option if they reject the current ones.”
The union announced last week that teachers, who have been without a contract since August, could walk off the job in order to turn up the pressure during tense labour negotiations with the Progressive Conservative government.
The teachers are already conducting a work-to-rule campaign and say they are pushing back against government plans to increase class sizes and introduce mandatory e-learning courses.
School boards across the province said Tuesday they would be forced to close their high schools because of the job action. At some boards where the union represents both teachers and education workers, both high schools and elementary schools were closed.
Such is the case in Ottawa, where the public school board said the cancellation also extended to night school, co-op programs and home instruction, as well as extended day programs it operates and some by third-party providers.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board faced criticism, however, for alerting families to the closure with automated phone calls shortly after the strike was announced at midnight.
The board apologized for the disruption in a statement Wednesday morning.
“We were aware how important this message was for many families, and wanted to maintain our commitment to notify the community as quickly as possible after OSSTF made its decision known. This was an unusual circumstance and we will take feedback into consideration for the future,” it said.
The union said parents have been largely supportive of its actions and opposed to increased class sizes and mandatory e-learning.
Manisha Dhar joined teachers on the picket line Wednesday at Toronto’s Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, where one of her sons is a student. Another goes to Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, she said.
“I really wanted to show some support and for teachers to know that parents are really behind them and that we really care about our kids’ education and we care about the teachers too,” she said, adding that one of her sons’ science teacher has said she’s concerned about running experiments safely.