Bob Umpherson may not be Johnny Cash, but he too has walked the line.
Back in 1997, the Stewart School instrumental music and Grade 6 teacher walked the picket line with teachers across Ontario to protest against then-Premier Mike Harris.
Now, 15 years later, another job action, and a Liberal premier this time, and Umpherson again finds himself walking the picket line set up at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Wilson Street, in front of the Perth pool on the chilly morning, Thursday, Dec. 20.
“This job action, I don’t really want to compare to that,” said Umpherson, the communications officer for the striking teachers at the Stewart School picket., noting that the circumstances are different. “We are trying to replace a bill (Bill 115, Putting Students First Act of 2012) that takes away the democratic rights not only of teachers but all workers. If this goes through, it gets through every public sector worker.”
Umpherson started teaching in 1984 in northern Manitoba, before moving beginning teaching at Duncan J. Schoular elementary school in Smiths Falls in 1987. He stayed at that school until 1997, when he moved to Perth’s Stewart School, where he and other teachers walked out at the end of October.
So far, this time around, only two children have asked him on the playground just what all of the fuss was about, but no parents have given him any guff about the teachers’ actions, part of a series of rotating, one-day strikes across the province.
Teachers at The Stewart School, as well as at other Perth-area public schools, have been “taking a pause with volunteering,” their time with extra-curricular activities since September, with some exceptions, like some running teams and school Christmas concerts.
“We didn’t start teams and then yank them away,” said Umpherson. “That would have (caused) a lot more of a hue and cry.”
For himself, the work-to-rule on extra-curriculars means that there is no school band at Stewart this year.
“Teachers love to do their extra-curriculars,” said Umpherson. “They love their music. But we can’t have a government imposing a collective agreement on us. It’s unprecedented. It’s never happened to this school before.”
Umpherson said he was unsure what action the teachers would take in the new year, but he is uncertain what will happen when a new premier takes over at the end of January.
“It’s easy to say that when you are all outside the situation,” said Umpherson of comments made by several Ontario Liberal leadership candidates at a recent meeting in Carleton Place about pausing or cancelling Bill 115.
Umpherson said, “The one thing that annoys me is the misleading statements by (Education) Minister Laurel Broten,” who stated that the government had been trying to negotiate with the teachers since February.
Not so, says, Umpherson.
With their contract having run out at the end of August, it would have been illegal for them to enter into contract negotiations beforehand.
“What upsets us is that we want to negotiate, and to have a government say, ‘Here is what we are going to give you and if you don’t (accept it), we will force it on you,’ that’s not democratic,” said Umpherson.
Some critics of the teachers’ union have pointed to the deal the McGuinty government has struck with the province’s doctors, but he challenged this, stating that doctors were allowed to find efficiencies whereas teachers were not allowed to do so.
“We have gone through a wide process,” said Umpherson. “Yeah, we’re ticked off, but we don’t do this as a first step. At least let us negotiate a pay freeze. Don’t impose it.”
Ontario Liberal victories in 2003, 2007, and 2011 can be chalked up in part to volunteers and support provided by the province’s teachers. With both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives having voted to pass Bill 115, by default, teachers may now sit at home, or support the New Democratic Party.
“In general, I would not be surprised by that,” said Umpherson.
Already, the Ontario NDP is in the midst of a fundraising drive to get ready for a much-anticipated spring provincial election. He predicts that the question, “What is your party going to do for the education system?” will be a hot topic of conversation on the campaign trail.
At the start of the morning picket, teachers collected non-perishable food items to donate to the food bank, and held a minute of silence to remember the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut on Dec. 14.
“We all love the children we teach and we were all affected by it,” said Claire Church, a local negotiator with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, in calling for the minute of silence.