TORONTO – Public elementary school teachers in Ontario are set to vote on whether to go on strike if their pending contract negotiations with the province don’t go their way, but their union said Wednesday that does not mean classes will imminently grind to a halt.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario said a general strike vote would take place at a series of meetings planned for late September and October, which will double as an opportunity to update its 83,000 members on ongoing contract talks with the province’s Progressive Conservative government.
Union president Sam Hammond said ETFO hopes to reach a new collective bargaining agreement without a work disruption, and holding a strike vote now is not a sign that teachers are planning to head for the picket lines.
But he said a strike mandate would both save time if talks hit hurdles down the road and offer extra leverage during the negotiations.
“When you have a strike mandate, I have found that people on the other side take you a bit more serious and are that much more focused on trying to get a deal,” Hammond said in a telephone interview.
Contracts for teachers and education workers at the province’s publicly funded schools expired at the end of August, and the Tory government had said it wanted to open negotiation talks early.
Hammond said ETFO began meeting with the government in June, adding talks have been respectful and productive so far.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has called on all parties to reach a deal as soon as possible “to provide predictability and confidence to parents, students and educators alike,” comments reiterated in a statement on Wednesday.
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ETFO and other major education unions have been critical of the government’s overall direction since taking power last June, including recent moves to increase class sizes for Grade 4 and higher, mandate e-learning courses and reduce per-student funding to boards.
The union said the series of meetings scheduled to take place over the next few weeks will allow members to hear updates on the union’s priorities for the upcoming round of contract talks. They include protection of full-day kindergarten, class sizes, hiring transparency and increased funding for students with complex needs.
But the government has stated that its recent changes to education policy are part of a broader effort to constrain public sector wage increases and reign in a $11.7-billion deficit.
Ontario Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said that while he hopes contract talks can be resolved without resorting to a strike, teachers are justified in pushing back against the government’s changes to the educational system.
“At the end of the day, cuts hurt kids,” Schreiner said in a statement. “I stand with educators who defend high-quality public education. I respect their right to collective bargaining and labour action in order to defend quality education.”
The government has already hit a road block in negotiating with another one of the province’s major teacher unions.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has previously said that talks with the province and its various school boards had stalled before they’d truly begun, citing disagreements over which issues should be negotiated at which bargaining tables and a reluctance to streamline the bargaining process.