As Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives made the case that growing labour unrest in the province is not their fault, some parents joined teachers on the picket lines Monday to show they disagreed.
The PC party created and posted a political video showing that governments of all political stripes have faced labour disruptions from teachers unions over the past 30 years. “This needs to stop,” the video urges. “Tell the union leaders to stop playing with your kids’ education.”
But that messaging was absent as thousands of members from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario began a one-day walkout hitting four large urban boards, including Toronto. Parents in some areas joined them on the picket lines, bringing hot coffee, homemade muffins and even hand warmers as morning temperatures dipped to -15 C.
The walkout by the union, which represents 83,000 members, shut down all public elementary schools in the Toronto, York Region and Ottawa-Carleton boards. And it left the Toronto Catholic board without early childhood educators in full-day kindergarten classrooms, prompting them to picket outside board headquarters. Monday’s ETFO walkout was the first in a week of planned labour disruption by various teacher unions, the magnitude of which has not been seen in more than two decades.
Outside Toronto’s Carleton Village Junior and Senior Sports and Wellness Academy, parents and their children outnumbered teachers picketing.
“We’re all together in this,” said Logan Wilson, who has a daughter in kindergarten and a one-year-old. Because she lives nearby, she was among the parents who opened up their homes for teachers to use washrooms and warm up.
“If I trust them to look after my daughter all day long, why wouldn’t I let them come and use my bathroom?”
Teachers also walked down the street to the Toronto Police Service’s 11 Division to use their facilities. That’s because striking teachers are not allowed on school property. But that didn’t prevent the principal and vice-principal from coming outside with an armful of blankets and hand warmers, and the office assistant from heating up the cinnamon rolls a teacher had brought in.
At the school, located near St. Clair Avenue West and Old Weston Road, parents appear unwavering in their support. On Sunday they gathered to make signs, with slogans such as “Education Isn’t Paper — Don’t Cut It,” “This Is Getting Ridiculous” and “I’ve Seen Smarter Cabinets at Ikea.” And on Monday morning, they spent about an hour with teachers on the picket line— some before heading off to work — cheerfully waving signs as passersby in cars honked to show support.
Rachel Huot, whose children are in grades 3 and 6, spearheaded the initiative there, which attracted about 20 other parents. She said many parents in the province are “really angry” and committed to supporting teachers.
“We feel like (teachers) are standing up for our kids and standing up for our education system,” said Huot, who is part of the Ontario Parent Action Network, a grassroots movement of parents taking action in their school communities.
The province hasn’t seen this level of labour unrest in education for more than two decades. On Monday, protesters showed up at Premier Doug Ford’s constituency office and are expected to do so again this week as strikes continue. On Tuesday, all Catholic elementary and secondary teachers across the province, as well as public elementary and secondary teachers in a handful of boards, will walk out. (The elementary teachers say they will continue with rotating strikes until a deal is reached.) All four teacher unions are also engaged in ongoing work-to-rule job action.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters the province will return to talks with teachers when mediators call all sides back to the bargaining table.
“All parties have an obligation to work very hard to get deals,” he said, noting there are upcoming negotiations scheduled with the union representing teachers in French-language boards.
However, there are no talks scheduled with the other three teacher unions — the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.
The teachers are opposed to larger class sizes — meaning the loss of thousands of teaching positions, as well as tens of thousands of classes and course options for teens — as well as the addition of mandatory online learning in high school.
Salary is also an issue, with the government legislating a one per cent wage increase and the unions seeking cost of living rises, or about two per cent.
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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the current unrest “completely unnecessary” and blamed the government.
“I think that the minister knows very well that if all of the other issues are taken off the table, in terms of cuts, then bargaining on some other issues can go forward.”
Lecce, she added, “can turn this around in a moment.”
Several polls have shown the government’s education policy is widely unpopular, especially among students.
But Lecce said the strike action unfairly targets students, and that parents “are rather displeased with the impacts of (Monday’s) one-day strikes and the upcoming withdrawal of service that’s impacting students.
“We owe it to the students of this province not to withdraw services from them,” Lecce said.
He said he “hopes the mediator brings the parties together … We stand ready to negotiate when the mediator … brings the parties together. We continue to make the case that these strikes hurt kids, with the hope that it will cease this escalation, which has had an adverse impact on learning.”
Lecce also continues to call on the teacher unions to accept private mediation, saying that helped land a recent three-year deal with support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said “strike action is always frustrating because it’s not what is good for kids. We prefer them to be in classrooms, we prefer them to be learning.”
The school boards, which sit at the bargaining table with the province and teachers, also oppose larger class sizes and e-learning for all students.
On Monday, the strike action meant some kids attended daylong camps — there were pop-up camps including one in a Buddhist temple — and parents who stayed home took in extra kids. Other children joined their moms and dads on the picket line.
Sarah Donnelly, who joined the teachers outside Carleton Village school with her two young sons, said, “we know the job action they’re taking today is to make sure that our children have the best education …They deserve fair compensation, they deserve a living-wage increase in a city that is very expensive — but they’re not just fighting for that … Our children don’t need to be in larger classes than they already are. And they are fighting for support for special needs students.”
Sipping on hot coffee, French teacher Paul Grewal said parent support has been remarkable. This, despite the province’s offer — described by one union leader as a “bribe” — to reimburse parents for up to $ 60 for child care each day that schools are closed. Grewal said he’s heard that some parents are considering taking the money and donating it to the schools.
“Giving parents their own money to placate them for a walkout that they essentially caused really doesn’t make any sense to us.”