The Ontario high school teachers’ strike may have lasted just one day, but it came with a “significant warning,” according to one expert.
“A one-day strike is basically a significant warning that the teachers and their representatives are serious,” Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, told Global News.
Pascal added that the one-day walkout, which affected roughly 40,000 high school teachers and 15,000 support staff, signals a full-blown one could be on the way.
“Is it simply to put the government on notice that it’s not satisfied with the government’s approach to collective bargaining.”
Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation President Harvey Bischof confirmed the one-day strike action Tuesday, after four days at the table with the government led to little progress. At some boards, such as the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, where the union represents teachers and education workers, both high schools and elementary schools were closed.
Among issues of continued disagreement were growing class sizes, the issue of mandatory e-learning, and teacher compensation. The government wants to increase pay by one per cent annually, while teachers want increases pegged to inflation.
Here’s a look at the one-day strike, the disagreements and possible next steps.
Significance of a one-day strike
The union cautioned last week that teachers could walk off the job in order to turn up the pressure during tense labour negotiations. Teachers are already conducting a work-to-rule campaign.
Bischof said the purpose of the one-day strike is to call political attention to the cuts that the government has imposed. The union’s workers, who have been without a contract since August, said the government has not put forward any constructive proposals during the negotiation process.
“While we sympathize absolutely with students and parents facing disruption and anxiety, a single day strike doesn’t come close to the kind of disruption this government will wreak on the education system if they’re allowed to go forward with their destructive proposals,” Bischof said.
Picketing teachers on Wednesday held up signs that read, “On strike to protect student services,” and “On strike to protect high quality education.”
Bischof said the union is focused on growing class sizes, disagreeing with the government’s claim that teachers are focused on their own salaries.
While just one day, Pascal noted the strike was the largest-scale walkout for this group of Ontario teachers since 1997, which means its a rare and serious step.
“We haven’t seen anything quite like this since the 90s with the Harris government,” he explained, when noting that a work-to-rule is as tense as it got during the time of Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty.
Reaction from government
Ontario’s Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, told Global News Radio Wednesday that the fault falls on the teachers’ union for the inconveniences caused by the strike.
“It is the position of this government that we should not be here. They made a choice to escalate and to strike today, knowing that there was a viable mechanism to get a deal through private meditation,” Lecce said.
Lecce said the union decided to proceed with the strike that “only hurts our kids” and called it “unacceptable.”
“Let’s not suggest this is not about money,” Lecce added, suggesting that teachers are most concerned about their pay in the negotiations.
Nour El-Kadri, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, disagreed with the minister’s assertion that teachers were acting against parents and students by striking.
“Most of the teachers, they are parents themselves, and they care about the children,” he said.
“For somebody to say that they care about the pay only, it’s not about the children, that’s not true.”
El-Kadri noted that both the government and union have “a lot of issues to resolve.”
Teachers and support staff will be back on the job as of Thursday, but it’s unclear when the saga will be resolved. Work-to-rule will continue, and the possibility of a longer strike still looms.
Lecce said Wednesday that the government has asked mediators for dates to “continue the dialogue” with the union.
“I want parents to know that I’m doing everything I can, in good faith, with the other parties. But it takes two to Tango, folks,” he said.
El-Kadri noted that in order to resolve the issue, he believes the government will have to change its tone on the issue and handle negotiations differently.
“The government cannot treat teachers’ negotiations like any trade negotiations or other workers negotiations,” he said. “Education and health care are special cases in these types of situations, because there are direct effects on the bottom line.”
— With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press