Teachers picket in front of Walter Zadow elementary school in Arnprior Thursday.
Many parents had to scramble to find temporary child care Dec. 13 as Renfrew County’s public school elementary teachers conducted a one-day walkout.
As promised, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) gave 72 hours notice, announcing Dec. 10 the series of rotating one-day walkouts to protest the provincial government’s Bill 115 would come to Renfrew County Dec. 13. It was the second day off this week for most local students, as school buses were cancelled throughout the district Monday because of the freezing rain.
The teacher walkouts began Monday in three districts and continued all week with the Ottawa job stoppage Wednesday. The Upper Canada Board, which includes Lanark, is expected to be hit early next week.
In response to the walkout notice, the Renfrew County public school board immediately announced all its elementary schools would be closed to students Thursday and there would be no elementary school bus service.
“Parents should make alternate child care arrangements for the day as elementary students will not be able to attend school,” said a board statement.
However, high schools will be open Thursday and secondary students are expected to attend, added the board. While teachers at RCI Intermediate School (grades 7-8) were to be off the job, Grade 9 to 12 classes “will proceed as usual,” said the board.
There had been rumours that high school students, upset over their teachers refusing to participate in extra-curricular activities, were also planning to walk out on the same day as the elementary teachers.
The secondary teachers’ withdrawal from extra-curricular activities began Monday in public schools and brought the Valley basketball and volleyball seasons to an abrupt halt, as well as cancelling Christmas band concerts.
The Upper Ottawa Valley High School Athletics Association website announced the suspension of all games “until the present situation is resolved.” While all boys basketball and girls volleyball games this week and next are listed as postponed, the schedule after the Christmas break is still listed in case an agreement between the teachers and provincial government is reached by year’s end.
Meanwhile, it was education as usual this week at the province’s Catholic elementary and secondary schools, as their teachers have agreed to tentative deals with the province.
In a media release Wednesday, the Renfrew County Catholic School Board confirmed that all its schools “will be open and fully operational on Thursday” and bus transportation would be available.
Up-to-date information will be posted on the board’s website.
FOUR LOCALS WALK OUT
ETFO Renfrew Teacher Local president Allison Ryan said Tuesday her membership is strongly behind the action. They are “fed up” with the provincial government taking away their collective bargaining rights and feel the one-day walkouts, which they have been in a legal position to do since Dec. 3, are the best way to send a strong message to Queen’s Park, she said.
Ninety-two percent of more than 46,000 members who cast a ballot voted in favour of a one-day political protest in voting conducted online Dec. 2-4.
Thursday’s public elementary walkout also included occasional teachers, education support personnel (ESP) and professional support personnel (PSP).
Ryan said teachers were planning to picket selected schools throughout the district from 9 a.m. to noon Thursday. Arnprior-area teachers will picket at Walter Zadow and in Renfrew pickets will be at Queen Elizabeth, Central and Renfrew Collegiate Intermediate. However, there should be no problem for high school students being dropped off and entering RCI, she said.
As well, there will be no difficulty for principals and CUPE workers reporting for work through the picket line, Ryan added.
She said the walkouts are definitely being limited to one day, at least for now.
Local teachers have a good relationship with their school board, but talks have been impeded by Bill 115, she said. “We realize the board can only bargain with what they’ve been given (by the province).”
While there have been several negotiation sessions with the board, no agreement has been finalized and one is not likely before the minister’s announced deadline of Dec. 31 as there have been no more talks scheduled.
She pointed out that some school boards have worked out agreements with secondary teachers, only to have the ministry of education thwart the process by demanding changes. “By taking away local autonomy to find solutions, the minister has created total chaos in the education sector,” she charged.
Representatives from other groups involved in Thursday’s walkout echoed Ryan’s comments in a news release announcing the action.
“Our members are prepared to do anything they can to stand up for their democratic rights, no matter how difficult or inconvenient,” said David Cresswell, president of the Renfrew Occasional Teacher Local.
“The public needs to realize that Bill 115 is draconian legislation that takes away the rights of working people,” said Renfrew PSP Local president Joan Bradley.
ESP Local president Colleen Mackin added that “we are hopeful of reaching a settlement but the minister has to rethink her approach to bargaining with the education sector.”
Ryan said that despite a comment by Premier Dalton McGuinty that the walkouts are about pay, they are about worker rights and the rollback of benefits. Teachers have agreed to a wage freeze to help get the provincial deficit in line, she noted.
She said it is unclear what will happen after Dec. 31. Bill 115 gives the provincial government the power to impose settlements on teachers after that date, but Minister Laurel Broten hasn’t said she’d do that, said Ryan.
It gives her the power to ban teacher walkouts such as ones this week, but Broten has chosen not to use that power, added Ryan.
She said that while some of the candidates vying to replace McGuinty as Liberal leader have said they wouldn’t enact Bill 115, none of them have said they would repeal it either. “We feel it should be repealed … before the dispute can be really resolved,” she said.
As well as conducting the walk-outs, elementary teachers have been protesting the legislation with a work-to-rule campaign that started Dec. 3. Teachers are not participating in staff meetings, professional development sessions, administrative and filing duties, and extra-curricular activities outside school hours.
Ryan said other civil servants are also concerned about the legislation, particularly health care workers who fear they are next. “Bill 115 has targeted teachers and other education workers, but it’s hard to say where the government is going to step next,” she said.
A gathering by health care workers at Bonnechere Manor in Renfrew last Friday was one of a series being held to sound the alarm for fear Ontario Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are intending take away their right to impartial arbitration and free collective bargaining.
“The governing Liberals want to give themselves the power to overturn the decisions of respected and independent arbitrators and impose contract terms and we think that's wrong,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.
“The PCs would go even further and tear up contracts that have been freely agreed-to by both employers and workers. We believe that people in Ontario will agree with us, that these kinds of democratic rights matter to everyone, not just unionized health workers.”
“There are two solutions to the chaos that the minister of education has created,” said EFTO president Sam Hammond in the 12 releases announcing the school districts in which the action is being taken this week.
“Along with repealing Bill 115, the minister needs to step aside and give school boards and ETFO locals the latitude to have concrete and respectful discussions with all options on the table, to reach collective agreements.”
Meanwhile, in a statement released Monday, McGuinty said while the walkouts are disappointing, they don’t warrant ordering teachers back to work.
“Today, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has disrupted nine years of labour peace over a disagreement about pay,” he said. “It's regrettable that students miss any time learning, and it’s unfortunate that families will need to make alternate arrangements.
“While inconvenient, these one-day legal strike actions do not warrant the intervention of the government and are a small price to pay to protect full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and 10,000 teaching jobs.
“While our government is disappointed that some teachers' unions have chosen to put students in the middle of our disagreement over pay, we are buoyed by those who have worked with us to put students first. Teachers represented by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens have reached negotiated agreements with the government. And their teachers remain in the classroom with their students.”
McGuinty said that faced with a $14-billion deficit, the government’s priority is to protect gains made in the schools.
I hope teachers will do as they've committed to do, which is to take no more than one day away from school. I'm sure most teachers understand the need to freeze pay - after nine years of fair and steady increases - just as we're asking all public servants to do across the public sector.”
Hammond responded by saying it is unfortunate the premier has “trivialized” the issue by characterizing it as a disagreement over pay.
“The education sector's response to Bill 115 is not about a wage freeze or pause in salaries. This strike action is about the government's unprecedented interference in the right to collectively bargain, a legal right provided for all people under Ontario law,” he said.
“The bill not only puts the minister above the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Ontario Labour Relations Act, it allows no judicial appeal in provincial courts - a tactic rarely if ever used in democracies.”
Meanwhile, the Opposition Progressive Conservatives also attacked the government, but for “cowering from the union bosses” and not going far enough to curb teacher walkouts. Ontario PC Education Critic Lisa MacLeod noted that the Liberals had brought the House back early to pass legislation that could end the rotating strikes, but four months later they still refuse to use it. “What’s more important: parents and students, or politics?” she asked.
“The Liberals need to stop putting their political interests ahead of our kids’ education. It is time for them to finally take the side of teachers, parents and the students and put an end to these strikes!”
New Democrat Education Critic Peter Tabuns said that the Liberals owe parents an apology for their “reckless and unconstitutional” education legislation that has brought conflict into Ontario classrooms.
“Instead of making an effort to reach an agreement that would benefit parents, kids and teachers, the McGuinty Liberals came up with a shortsighted scheme in a desperate attempt to win a by-election. Now parents and students are paying the price,” he said.
“It’s time for a respectful conversation that leads to a real agreement.”