Rotating school strikes unlikely to impact Ontario economy: experts

Teachers of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario wave to honking cars as they participate in a full withdrawal of services strike in Toronto on Monday, January 20, 2020. Nathan Denette/CP

It’s going to be a logistically complicated week for many parents, as teachers hit the picket lines for a series of rotating one-day strikes. But the disruptions are unlikely to have any measurable impact on Ontario’s economy, experts say.

For one, the number of teachers walking off the job on any given day is extremely small compared to the size of the province’s labour market, said Beata Caranci, chief economist at TD Bank Group.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), for example, represents some 83,000 teachers and educational workers. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Ontario’s 7.5 million jobs — and ETFO teachers aren’t even going on strike all the same time. Instead, the rotating strikes will be spread out from Monday, Jan. 20, to Friday, Jan. 24, this week.

READ MORE: Ontario teachers strike: Are you allowed to take your child to work with you?

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Strikes in the public service sector often have less of an impact on economic activity because they tend to simply result in backlogs and delays, said Ian Lee, a professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. A shutdown of a manufacturing plant, by contrast, may cause a company to miss production targets, he added.

In general, it takes a strike that lasts a month or more and involves a sizable chunk of the workforce to have an economic impact large enough to show up in the data, Caranci said.

Still, even last year’s 40-day strike at General Motors produced nary a blip in Canada’s economic data, Caranci noted. That’s even though the walkout paralyzed GM’s U.S. production, with ripple effects spreading across the border to Canadian parts manufacturers and suppliers.

READ MORE: U.S. General Motors workers to strike, likely impact Canadian operations

Often, the strikes that do have a palpable economic impact involve the transportation sector, both Caranci and Lee said.

Something like the November CN Rail strike, for example, can have widespread repercussions because virtually anyone trying to move goods across the country would be affected, Caranci said.

The CN strike, for example, threatened crops in both the Prairies, where farmers needed to ship grain, and Quebec, where growers depend on rail service to deliver the propane they need to dry their harvest.

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Click to play video: 'CN Rail strike comes at critical time for farm, oil exports'
CN Rail strike comes at critical time for farm, oil exports

That’s why governments are more likely to resort to back-to-work legislation in these scenarios, according to Lee. For example, 33 of the 35 times in which Ottawa legislated workers back to work between 1950 and 2011 involved strikes in the transportation and communications sector, Lee’s research shows.

Teachers strikes, by contrast, have a much more muted impact on working parents, who can find alternate childcare arrangements, work from home or take the day off, both Lee and Caranci said.

It helps that teachers’ unions have been been giving families time to plan ahead, Caranci said.

Overall, Lee said, the impact of the strikes is “much more political and psychological than economic.”

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The ETFO held strikes on Monday in the York Region, Toronto and Ottawa-Carleton school boards. The strikes will hit different boards each day this week as tensions escalate between the union and the province.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation is holding a one-day strike at some boards on Tuesday, as is the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

All four major teachers’ unions are engaged in job action as they negotiate new collective agreements with the Progressive Conservative government.

READ MORE: Ontario’s 4 teachers’ unions are engaged in job actions. Here’s what they’re fighting for

The unions say that class sizes and cuts to services are the roadblocks in bargaining, while Education Minister Stephen Lecce insists they’re stuck on wages.

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The province released an ad over the weekend suggesting teacher strikes have been a regular issue under every regime since the 1990s. “This needs to stop. #strikeshurtkids” said the ad, which Lecce shared on Twitter.

Only the union representing teachers in Ontario’s French school system has contract talks scheduled with the government, even as they began a work-to-rule campaign last week.

The government announced last week that it would compensate parents affected by the elementary teacher strikes.

Click to play video: 'Lecce explains rationale behind province’s child care funding'
Lecce explains rationale behind province’s child care funding

Under the plan, parents whose kids aren’t yet enrolled in school but attend school-based child-care centres affected by the strikes will get the most money – $60 per day – while those with children in grades 1 through 7 will get the least – $25.

READ MORE: Some Ontario parents say they will donate daycare strike subsidy back to teachers, education

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While parents of secondary school students won’t get any funding, those with children with special needs up to age 21 will get $40 per day – the same amount as parents whose kids are in kindergarten.

The Ministry of Education has said more than 100,000 parents have signed up for that program, which could cost the government $48 million per day if teachers from all school boards were to strike. Still, that’s less than the $60 million per day the government spends in teacher compensation.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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