Ontario high school teachers and support staff have set up picket lines all over the province as part of their one-day strike in protest of a lack of movement in contract talks between the union and provincial government.
“No strike to protect high quality education,” “Negotiate! Don’t legislate,” and “Psych helps all students” were among some of the many signs being used by picketers.
“Because of the cuts the kids aren’t falling into the cracks, they’re being pushed into the cracks,” child and youth worker Tiffany McDermott told Global News while picketing in front of Toronto District School Board headquarters Wednesday.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which represents about 60,000 public high school teachers and support workers, said the government had not put forward any constructive proposals during the negotiation process.
“After midnight we have not reached an agreement and so the strike is officially on,” said OSSTF President Harvey Bischof. “OSSTF education workers and teachers will be back in schools Thursday. We remain ready to negotiate.”
The hundreds of support workers in front of TDSB cheered in response every time passing motorists honked their horns in solidarity.
Ontario’s public high school teachers have been without a contract since August.
High school students from Richview Collegiate Institute spent their day playing hockey and told Global News it beat “sitting around” on their phones all day.
When asked how they felt about the strike, the students said they were supportive of their teachers.
“I feel like it’s definitely necessary. Class sizes are much too big and there’s not enough support in the classes,” said Aminah Kirefu.
“I think that there are certainly things that shouldn’t be changed so the strike makes sense,” added Sarah Abbott.
Elsewhere students brought their teachers from Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute coffees as they walked the picket lines.
Global News spoke to students in Toronto’s downtown core, where high schoolers said they had just finished a Ryerson University walking tour. Two boys were just “walking around” before they were going to head home to work on a project due Thursday and a group of Grade 12 girls were going to go shopping at the Eaton’s Centre.
On Tuesday night, Education Minister Stephen Lecce asked the union to call off the strike, saying his bargaining team had presented a new “framework” to the union in a bid to keep all parties at the table.
Bischof said the teachers had not been given anything new by a mediator, and no progress had been made for days.
“We spent four days at the hotel starting Saturday morning to midnight last night,” he said. “Not a single new proposal. I think we’ve had about a half hour of face-to-face meetings and not one proposal brought forward.”
The union announced last week that teachers could walk off the job in order to turn up the pressure during tense labour negotiations with the Progressive Conservative government.
“I would say it’s a fairly reasonable step for us given the fact that the government, just a number of months after it was elected, began cutting publicly funded education in Ontario,” OSSTF Local President Leslie Wolfe told Global News Wednesday. “Just about a year ago, they took $25 million out of programs for mostly at-risk students.
The teachers are already conducting a work-to-rule campaign and say they are pushing back against government plans to increase class sizes and introduce mandatory e-learning courses.
“We have spent eight months attempting to bargain a deal, we have spent eight months saying to this government that it cannot cut our school system and we’re at the point now, where we’re taking this step,” Wolfe continued.
Bischof told Global News that he sympathizes with parents and those who may be frustrated with the strike action.
“…But we know that parents told this government through the government’s own consultations that the vast majority weren’t interested in larger class sizes, they weren’t interested in e-learning.”
The strike will call political attention to the cuts that this government has already imposed and wants to impose further, Bischof continued.
“We have seen this government change direction when faced with political opposition and so that’s our intention.”
School boards across the province said Tuesday they would be forced to close their high schools because of the job action.
Lecce has said the main issue in the talks is compensation, with the government recently passing legislation to cap annual wage increases for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years. The union is asking for inflationary increases, which would amount to about two per cent.
Bischof dismissed the claim that compensation is the main issue as “outrageous.”
The minister said the government remains ready to bargain, but did not provide any further details of the new framework apparently offered on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Bischof said the union will go back to the table whenever there is “an invitation to do so.”
“Anytime the government is prepared to put a proposal on the table that will secure the education quality in Ontario,” he said.
—With files from The Canadian Press