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Ontario education worker strike introduces ‘wild card’ to federal campaign: experts

Ontario education workers announce full strike action to begin Monday
WATCH: Ontario education workers announced Wednesday they will begin full strike action Monday. The announcement comes on the heels of education minister Stephen Lecce saying he was available “24-7” to keep talks going.

Ontario’s education support workers are set to go on strike on Monday in a move experts say injects a fresh shot of uncertainty into the federal campaign.

Tens of thousands of custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators will walk off the job when that strike officially begins, and the big question for political parties now is whether that will create enough frustration among Ontario suburban voters to influence their ballots..

“I think it would be a bit of a wild card,” said Peter Graefe, a professor of political science at McMaster University.

“When it does arrive, I think it will probably be polarizing. For some, I expect it will be a further mark against the Ford conservatives, provincially, with the idea that we had labour peace in the schools for a long time, this was upset by the election of a conservative government that said it wasn’t really going to change much, so should we have a similar concern about Andrew Scheer?”

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He continued: “On the other hand, there’ll be some people who will be really fed up with the education workers because their lives are going to be complicated.”

The decision to go on strike comes as the federal parties are locked in a battle for seats around the Greater Toronto Area.

Lecce disappointed by acceleration of action on part of CUPE officials
Lecce disappointed by acceleration of action on part of CUPE officials

Many of those are swing ridings, where the impact of broad cuts put in place by Ontario Premier Doug Ford have been strongly felt.

In repeated polls and surveys over recent months, Ford’s popularity rating has sunk deeply and roughly half of Ontario voters say their opinion of Ford will influence their federal vote on Oct. 21.

READ MORE: Federal Conservatives focus on boosting party’s message to counter ‘Ford factor’ in Ontario

There’s been speculation that a teacher strike could hurt Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer if voters blame Ford for such a strike and turn up their noses at the federal leader in response, but the impact of a smaller-scale strike by education support workers remains an open question.

Darrell Bricker, president of Ipsos, said he expects the federal Liberal party will try to use the strike to their advantage against Scheer.

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“I’m sure the federal Liberals are going to be talking about it. It will be interesting to see whether voters actually make that connection,” he said, noting that among voters “it may be an issue or it may not.”

“Depends on whether Andrew Scheer decides to comment on it. He may not.”

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Ford has so far been absent from Scheer’s campaign, even throughout the Toronto area.

His decision to adjourn the provincial legislature until after the federal election raised eyebrows earlier this year, as well as questions about whether he was doing so to try to limit any potential negative backlash to the federal campaign from his government’s policies.

Ford’s government said that wasn’t the case and that they were taking the extra-long summer break — which lasts until Oct. 28 — because of the pace at which they worked in the first year of his majority mandate.

And although the strike right now is limited to education support workers, high school teachers in Ontario have been without a contract for roughly a year, and the union representing elementary school teachers is in the process of holding strike votes with its members.

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Neither are in a strike position yet, but the threat of a broader strike will up the ante for federal parties, Bricker suggested.

“They [Liberals] will try to paint this as some sort of an example of what Doug Ford has done to Ontario, Andrew Scheer will do to the country, which is the connection they’re trying to make,” he said.

“A teacher strike in the place that has the largest number of swing voters, particularly suburban swing voters — that would not be good for the federal Conservative party.”