By Stew Slater
Merlin Leis, president of the Avon Maitland local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), admitted on Monday afternoon that teachers in Huron and Perth Counties were “a little leery at the beginning” when they found out the provincial ETFO leadership had selected them — along with teachers in a small Timmins-area school board — to be the first in a planned board-by-board, single-day walkout in protest of the provincial Education Ministry’s Bill 115.
“I wasn’t privy to that decision,” explained Leis, in an interview with the Journal Argus shortly after Avon Maitland’s ETFO members dispersed from their picket lines across the two counties at 2 p.m. on Monday. In St. Marys, teachers from Little Falls in St. Marys, Downie Central, South Perth Centennial and the Arthur Meighen Wing of St. Marys DCVI gathered on the James Street South sidewalk next to DCVI’s student parking lot entrance, signs in hand, beginning before 8 a.m.
Having visited the picket locations — Grade 7-8 sites, the board’s Seaforth headquarters, and the office of Perth-Wellington MPP Randy Pettapiece — throughout the day with provincial ETFO president Sam Hammond, however, Leis reported the mood among striking teachers was “upbeat wherever we went . . . I think that our members came around to considering it an honour to show the province the way, so to speak, that teachers are going to show their displeasure with the heavy-handedness being shown by the government.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty, in a statement distributed to media outlets Monday, stated: “Today, ETFO has disrupted nine years of labour peace over a disagreement about pay. It’s regrettable that students miss any time learning, and it’s unfortunate that families will need to make alternate arrangements.”
But Leis said categorizing the dispute as “a disagreement about pay” is entirely inaccurate.
“We have not been averse to a two-year wage freeze,” the local union president told the Journal Argus. “I think it’s something that members have been expecting.”
Instead, he said, it’s the clauses within Bill 115 — approved by the minority Legislature in September — limiting collective bargaining rights which have created the stalemate. And it’s a stalemate that threatens to move to a new level once an Education Ministry-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2012 passes. At that time, Bill 115 gives Education Minister Laurel Broten the authority to impose contracts on all education sector labour groups.
Citing the safety of students, the Avon Maitland District School Board chose to close all elementary schools on Monday, rather than keep them open using administrators and support staff represented by different unions. Warning was given a few days ahead, and ETFO pledges to provide at least 48 hours notice to students and parents of other boards targetted by one-day walkouts.
In St. Marys, elementary teacher ranks were bolstered at the picket line before 8:30 a.m. by several high school teachers, members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) union. Sanctions already in force with the OSSTF ask teachers not to enter the school more than 30minutes before the start of classes, and union protocol dictates the employees approach the “strike captain” of a group of picketers before crossing the line into their workplace.
OSSTF members in this board had originally scheduled a ratification vote on a new contract that was hammered out on Nov. 19 and subsequently ratified by Avon Maitland trustees. But District 8 (Avon Maitland) OSSTF president Jeff Denys told the Journal Argus on Monday that the union local called off their own members’ ratification vote after it became apparent Broten would intervene.
“It’s really irrelevant which parts got changed,” Denys said, when asked to expand. “What really matters is that there was an abuse of process. How can you, in good faith, bargain an agreement at the local level when you know there’s someone out there who can step in and change it?”
Effective this week, OSSTF has heightened its sanctions, withdrawing from extra-curricular supervision.