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Is a teachers strike looming? What Ontario government and unions say

Click to play video: 'Ontario elementary school teachers return overwhelming strike mandate'
Ontario elementary school teachers return overwhelming strike mandate
RELATED: Elementary school teachers in Ontario have voted 95 per cent in favour of potential strike action as negotiations with the Ford government drag on. As Global News' Queen's Park bureau chief Colin D'Mello explains, the vote doesn't necessarily mean classrooms will close this fall – Oct 18, 2023

The showdown between teachers’ unions and the Ontario government is heating up, as elementary and Catholic teachers have handed their respective unions overwhelming strike mandates.

On Wednesday, elementary teachers showed protracted negotiations could escalate as 95 per cent of members gave the union a mandate to strike. The next day, the English Catholic teachers voted 97 per cent in favour of the same move.

The news was greeted cautiously by both union and government leaders, with the two sides stressing the mandates don’t mean classrooms will close this fall.

With two major teaching unions now one step closer to striking, here is what both sides are saying and where Ontario’s other major unions stand.

What the government says

Soon after Ontario’s elementary teachers voted in favour of a strike mandate, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce took questions from reporters at Queen’s Park. He repeatedly pointed to an agreement for binding arbitration the province reached with the union representing secondary school teachers as his preferred model.

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“It’s clear that 100 per cent of families in this province want us to insist that children remain in schools and we firmly agree,” Lecce said.

“We just concluded a framework and agreement with OSSTF — that’s the public high school teachers. We signed a deal that protects the in-person experience, ensures these children are in school. And it begs the question, fundamentally, if we can get an agreement with one of the largest unions for English public high school teachers, why can’t we get that with English public elementary school teachers?”

Lecce said the strike mandate did not significantly change the bargaining situation in the eyes of the Ford government.

“Look, teacher unions have historically held strike votes all the time,” he said, saying it does “not really” make a difference at the bargaining table.

Lecce said the vote was “not surprising,” adding it was “common” for unions to vote for strike mandates.

The education minister did not say what the sticking points at the negotiating table were. In response to a question about salary, he said that “historically, compensation is a challenge,” before repeating his calls for binding arbitration. Lecce said that, from the government’s point of view, there is still “flexibility” around negotiation timelines.

“My mission is very simple: it’s to provide a deal that keeps kids in school,” he said.

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What ETFO says

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Karen Brown told Global News the strike vote was a sign the teachers she represents are losing patience.

“This vote means that our members are frustrated with the pace of negotiations,” she said. “It’s a strong message to the government to be serious about bargaining and to move on where they are in regard to our contracts.”

Brown said another day of bargaining had been scheduled for Friday, Oct. 20. The strike mandate will now be part of those discussions and a tool in the union’s negotiations.

“Does that mean we’re going out tomorrow? Absolutely not,” she said. “There is a lengthy process.”

In late August, ETFO announced it had asked the Ministry of Labour to appoint a conciliator to stick-handle the thorny negotiations, more than a year after the union’s contract had expired. A ministry-appointed conciliator joined the negotiations and is scheduled to meet with the bargaining teams on Oct. 20 and 27.

The conciliation process is key to determining what happens next and whether students will experience more classroom disruption.

If the talks derail, the process would end with a “no-board” report — meaning the Ministry of Labour would not appoint a three-member conciliation panel to finalize the contract. That would effectively trigger a countdown to a strike.

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Once the no-board notice has been released by the Ministry of Labour, the union would have to wait 17 full days before educators could legally walk off the job after giving notice of strike action.

The 17-day period allows school boards the chance to prepare for the strike and gives parents a window to plan out their childcare options.

Brown said issues that persisted at the bargaining table with the province included compensation, benefits and violence in schools. She said an arbitration process would not address more holistic workplace issues than just salary.

Addressing the strike vote, Brown said “nobody wants to be on strike,” calling the option a “last resort.”

What OECTA says

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said in its statement that the 45,000 teachers the union represents are united and ready to do “whatever is necessary” to reach a deal with the Ford government.

Union president René Jansen in de Wal said the strike mandate sent a strong message to the government, with more bargaining dates between the union and province still to come.

“As we move forward with our next bargaining dates, the Ford Conservative government and Catholic trustee representatives need to understand that Catholic teachers … are united in solidarity, and prepared to do whatever is necessary to reach an agreement,” Jansen in de Wal said in a statement.

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He accused Lecce of an “ongoing misinformation campaign” and reminded parents the strike vote does not mean a strike will take place.

“In fact, such a strong strike mandate may make job action less likely — but only if the Minister and Catholic school board representatives heed the message being sent,” the union president said.

“And it will enable the Association to proceed forward in negotiations with the full confidence of Catholic teachers.”

Where the other unions stand

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has agreed to binding arbitration with the Ford government. The union representing French teachers in Ontario has said it will not accept the offer of binding arbitration, the same position OECTA and ETFO have taken.

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