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Teachers’ protest called off, but labour unrest continues

Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff

Public elementary schools in Stratford were open for classes on Friday hours after a one-day walkout to protest the provincial government’s imposed labour contracts was deemed to be illegal.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board handed down its judgment at about 3:30 a.m. Friday, siding with Premier Dalton McGuinty in concluding the organized “political protest” by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) was unlawful.

“Now teachers understand that what they were being asked to do by their union was to break the law,” said Ontario education minister Laurel Broten, in a statement to media Friday morning. “Teachers are law abiding and now that they know the facts, I know that they will report to work this morning.”

Soon after the board’s decision, the ETFO called off its strike. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which had planned a walkout for this week, soon followed suit. Engaging in an illegal strike can carry a fine of up to $2,000 per person and up to $25,000 for a union.

Local ETFO president Merlin Leis said he didn’t believe there was any discussion at the provincial or local level about teachers not returning to classroom if the labour board didn’t rule in its favour.

“That’s not the composition of elementary teachers,” he added. “We’re rule followers, we’re pleasers, and we’ll comply with the rules.”

Still, Leis said he was disappointed in the labour board’s decision, noting he felt the ETFO was justified in its actions.

The planned walkout was to show the union’s disapproval for the Liberals’ controversial Bill 115 – legislation that gave the government,  saddled with a $14-billion deficit, the power to impose contracts on teachers that put in place wage freezes, reduced benefits and restricted their ability to strike.

The uncertainty surrounding Friday’s school day left many parents in limbo, unsure whether to make alternate childcare arrangements. Speaking with the Gazette Friday afternoon, Avon Maitland District School Board communications manager Steve Howe said attendance was down across its schools, noting some school bus drivers were reporting their routes were running only half full.

“We’re anticipating it’s a fairly sizeable drop off from normal,” he said. “We expected there would be people who either didn’t know (the schools were open) or decided they didn’t want to change what they had arranged already.”

Howe said he understands parents’ frustration, but added there wasn’t anything more the board, which updated its website as new information was made available, could have done.

According to Leis, that frustration also spilled over to the teachers, some of whom were upset to learn about the strike on Wednesday afternoon, less than 48 hours before. For that reason, he suspects participation in the strike would have been softer than the one-day walkout held in early December, when just about every local ETFO member – 650 regular and 350 occasional teachers – participated.

“We heard a lot of grumbling about the timing,” he noted.

While classes were running Friday, Leis said it wasn’t a return to business as usual at schools, noting many elementary teachers would continue to take a hard-nosed stance and refrain from participating in voluntary duties outside of regular school hours, like extracurriculars.

“The goodwill that has been there and always been there (between teachers and the province) has eroded at this point in time,” Leis added. “I don’t know if it’s enough to negatively impact the profession going forward; I sincerely hope not.”

Leis said he cannot see the labour unrest being resolved until the government repeals Bill 115 and returns to the bargaining table for meaningful negotiations. He’s hopeful that day will come sooner than later, depending on the outcome of the Liberal leadership race later this month.

“We’ve said from the beginning we understand the fiscal realities Ontario finds itself in,” he said, adding he believes “new faces at the table are required to have a relationship moving forward that is beneficial to everybody.”

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