Teachers vote 98 percent in favour of strike mandate if negotiations fail

SUDBURY––The long educational armistice appears to be over, as teachers’ unions expressed outrage over the decision of the McGuinty government to pass Bill 115, the ‘Putting Students First Act,’ with the assistance of the official opposition Progressive Conservatives. Aside from the Ontario Catholic teachers’ union, which signed a memorandum of agreement with the province in July, teachers across Ontario have voted over 90 percent in favour of strike action.

Teachers assert that Bill 115 is an assault on their democratic rights to collective bargaining, while the government asserts that the provisions of the bill suggesting a two-year wage freeze and allowing the minister to prevent strikes and lockouts are necessary due to the current provincial deficit.

In response to the legislation, Island teachers have been asked to withdraw voluntary services such as extracurricular activities and before and after shift meetings.

“This is not a labour dispute,” stressed Barb Blasuti, president of the Rainbow District School Board local of the Elementary School Teachers’ Federation of Ontario whose membership recently voted 98 percent in favour of a strike mandate. “This is a political protest.”

Ms. Blasuti suggested that Bill 115 has taken away the opportunity to negotiate and replaced collective bargaining rights with the imposition of contract language without input from teachers.

“The (education) minister is selling the public mistruths and half-truths,” asserted Ms. Blasuti. “They are saying there was an opportunity to bargain since last February. That meeting was not bargaining.” Ms. Blasuti noted that the government came into the meeting with teachers to present a fait accompli. “This is what you are going to get: ‘take it or leave it’,” she said. “Normally collective bargaining is a problem-solving exercise and we have kept the doors open to that process.”

Ms. Blasuti said that the teachers are well aware of the financial straits the government finds itself in. “This is not about money,” she said. “This is about democracy and human rights. We teach our students that when you see bullying, you stand up for the victim. When you see injustice, you stand up to it.”

For its part, the province has maintained that it will not necessarily force unions back to work should unions not reach agreements with school boards. School boards are still free to negotiate contracts; they just have to be negotiated within the fiscal framework set out by the government.

The government maintains that the provision to force teachers back to work has always been a part of the provincial discussion tables, and, according to Sault Ste Marie MPP David Orazietti in a letter to the Sault Star, “is consistent with the provisions of the Ontario Labour Relations Act.”

It was under these terms that the Ontario’s Catholic teachers’ union came to an agreement with the province. That agreement will see, among other items, a two-year wage freeze, a restructuring of the teachers’ pay grid and the end of teachers’ ability to bank unused sick days. In addition, attendance at professional development days, whether paid or not, will now be optional. The agreement brought some measure of labour peace to 43,000 elementary and secondary teachers in 29 Catholic school boards across Ontario, but some locals were livid that their leadership signed the agreement without a membership vote.

In that agreement, Catholic teachers gave up two unpaid professional development days to preserve the pay grid for younger teachers.

The announcement that the government will not necessarily impose restrictions on the right to strike should unions and school boards not come to agreements by this February brings back a significant measure of uncertainty to the education front.

Ms. Blasuti said that her union is bringing in what they refer to as McGuinty Mondays, where, in addition to teachers in her union being asked to scale back their volunteer contributions, they are being asked to show up for work no more than 30 minutes before they are scheduled to teach and to leave no more than 30 minutes after. “We are also asking that they not attend any meetings before or after the day,” she said. The purpose of these job protests, as she characterized them, is “our way to remind the premier that we have not forgotten.”

These actions will also serve to bring a greater awareness of what teachers bring to the table as part of improving their communities. “Teachers don’t take these actions lightly,” said Ms. Blasuti. “But we have to stand up for our rights. If it is okay to violate our rights today, will it be okay to violate the rights of others tomorrow?”

Ms. Blasuti said that teachers recognize the protest measures will be unpopular. “What would our society be like if no one ever stood up for what is right just because they were worried that people would be upset with them?”

Michael Erskine