What parents should know about a possible Ontario teacher strike

Even before the first month of class is over, Ontario schools are bracing for labour disruption. Here's how to prepare and what to expect.

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Update, November 28, 2019: Ontario’s public high school teachers say they will hold a one-day strike next week as their ongoing labour dispute with the province continues to escalate.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation says it will hold a “province-wide full withdrawal of services’’ on Wednesday, Dec. 4, if a new deal isn’t reached before then. Public high school teachers started an administrative work-to-rule campaign on Tuesday that includes not putting comments on report cards, not participating in standardized testing, and not attending certain meetings. The four major teachers’ unions have all expressed frustration with what they say has been a lack of progress at the bargaining table with the province. Elementary teachers also started an administrative work-to-rule campaign this week. The Catholic teachers’ union has talks scheduled Friday involving a conciliator, and French teachers will hold strike votes next month. —With files from the Canadian Press

Even before the first month of class is over, schools across Ontario are bracing for labour disruption. As of Monday, Sept. 30, support workers who are represented by CUPE have launched a work-to-rule campaign over job cuts, with janitors refusing certain tasks such as sweeping hallways and office administrators no longer placing those early-morning calls for supply teachers. While the union did return to the bargaining table over the weekend, it failed to bring a deal, so the work-to-rule has begun.

But that’s not the only labour brush fire underway right now in Ontario schools. The high school teachers’ union just took the unusual step of publicizing its contract demands, which include reversing the government’s moves to larger classes and forcing teens to take four of their high school courses online. Meanwhile, teachers from Ontario’s 1,500 Catholic schools recently lodged a formal complaint against Queen’s Park for raising class sizes by decree, rather than bargaining.

So, even though there isn’t a whisper of a strike yet by elementary teachers, it makes sense for parents to get prepared for all kinds of labour unrest.

Here’s what parents need to know.

Why is all this strike and work-to-rule talk happening now?

Doug Ford’s government has made cuts to education in its bid to shrink the deficit and many people aren’t happy. Teenagers walked out of school over larger classes and fewer course options. School boards are reeling from cuts to government grants that have led them to give out pink slips to staff from teachers to custodians.

kids protesting the ontario education plan What exactly is happening to Ontario’s education system? What you need to know But it’s also important to understand that school labour negotiations come around every three years, and with them, talk of strikes and work-to-rule. As parents, we need to understand this is part of the normal cycle of a unionized workplace, and using the threat of job action is part of the process. Since education contracts typically come up for renewal at the end of August, we start hearing about teacher bargaining and possible strikes just as we’re getting our kids ready for back-to-school. Admittedly, the timing can be unnerving.

How likely is it that teachers will actually strike this time?

Impossible to say, but don’t panic yet. While work-to-rule campaigns seem to pop up every time education union contracts come up for renewal, full school strikes are rare. The last full province-wide teachers’ strike was in 1997. That two-week walkout was fuelled by outrage over by cuts to education by the Mike Harris government.

When will we know if a teacher strike is going to happen?

Unions must always give five days’ notice of any “job action,” from a full strike to a work-to-rule (and so must a school board too, if it decides to lock workers out).

Should I worry when I hear there’s a “strike vote?”

No. Strike votes are part of the process of collective bargaining, which simply give the bargaining team leverage at the table designed to put pressure on the employer, but they’re far from a guarantee of a strike. Likewise, don’t panic if you hear a union will be “in a legal strike position” on a certain day. Again, this is part of the long process of collective bargaining, and doesn’t mean there will ever be a strike.

If there is a strike, how long would it last?

Again, the last big province-wide strike lasted two weeks. That said, there’s no clear limit—although when school strikes drag on so long they threaten the students’ academic year, the province tends to order them back to work. But in recent years unions have been more selective in how they use strikes, sometimes opting for rotating one-day strikes in different cities. Unions also can target a handful of school boards with strikes, as the high school teachers’ union did in 2015 in Peel, Durham and Sudbury, cancelling classes for some 70,000 teens for almost a month. The Ontario Labor Relations Board eventually ruled the walkouts illegal and Queen’s Park ordered teachers back to work.

If my baby or toddler’s daycare is located in a school and there’s a strike, will it close?

It depends on several factors, but there’s a good chance it will stay open. Daycare centres are typically separate entities from the schools in which they are housed. Unless their workers refuse to cross a picket line, they will in many cases remain open. It’s a good idea to speak to your daycare’s supervisor as soon as possible to get their insights on how things might play out.

What exactly does “work to rule” mean?

Generally speaking, it refers to a labour reduction or a slowdown. It means workers do the bare minimum of work required by their employer.

How will the CUPE support-worker work-to-rule affect my kids?

  • Caretakers will stop cutting grass, emptying outside garbage pails, cleaning hallways, gyms or offices, and will not put up chairs for any functions (including election polling stations!).
  • Secretaries will not update the school website or fix jammed photocopiers, administer medication, find supply teachers, complete reports for the ministry of education, do head lice checks, make copies of report cards or run the door buzzer to let people into the school.
  • Education assistants will not do written reports or mount material on bulletin boards, take student attendance, supervise students besides the one to whom they are assigned, take part in any school breakfast or lunch program, or prepare material for class.
  • Early Childhood Educators will not prepare written reports or work on student displays, prepare materials for class or supervise students outside their own class.
  • Library technicians and assistants will not take part in book fairs, lead small book clubs or help teachers find resources or teach any classes.
  • Similar restrictions apply to speech and language pathologists, social workers, chaplains, IT workers, child and youth workers and international language and ESL instructors. However CUPE members have been told not to refuse to do anything that would put a student at risk or make a school unsafe.

What if my kid’s school gets disgustingly dirty? Do school boards close schools if they get filthy?

School boards won’t keep open schools that threaten children’s health or safety, says OPSBA president Cathy Abraham. “But our goal is to keep schools open and students learning in a safe environment.” While some school boards in past CUPE work-to-rule campaigns used head-office managers to clean toilets and collect garbage, Abraham told Today’s Parent that’s not always possible, especially in boards with small head-office staffs and big distances between schools. “We are aware of parents’ anxiety over these situations; most of us are parents who have had kids in elementary school, so we’re going to try hard to have as little disruption as possible.”

What can I expect if teachers work-to-rule?

This has been a popular tactic in recent years, to devastating effect. In a work-to-rule, teachers typically boycott after-school activities, shutting down sports teams, field trips, drama clubs, music programs, student councils, Me-to-We clubs, charity events and sometimes cancelling graduation ceremonies. Teachers also have refused to add comments on report cards, or conduct the province’s standardized tests.

What’s the best way to keep up-to-date on labour developments?

There are three groups who come together to hammer out big-ticket items for Ontario schools like salary, benefits and class size. If you want to keep up with labour developments, it helps to know the names of these power-brokers, their acronyms and their Twitter handles.

1. The banker

The government of Ontario controls the funding of education. The buck stops, and starts, here. @Oneducation on Twitter.

2. The employers:

  • A whopping 1.3 million students go to Ontario public schools run by boards that belong to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA). As the umbrella group for the 31 English-language school boards and 10 regional authorities that educate 70 per cent of Ontario school children, OPSBA is the official employer sitting at the bargaining table, even if the government holds the purse strings. @OPSBA on Twitter.
  • If your child goes to a Catholic school, it’s the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) that’s bargaining on behalf of 29 Catholic school boards that educate 575,000 students. It too is an employer, but with no control over funding. @CatholicEdu on Twitter.

3. The unions:

  • Children in most Ontario public schools are supported by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 55,000 support workers in all Ontario schools—elementary and high school, public and Catholic, English and French. If these folks work-to-rule, it hits everyone. Their ranks include special education assistants and janitors, school secretaries and early childhood educators, maintenance workers, child and youth workers and itinerant music instructors, among dozens of others. @CUPEOntario on Twitter.
  • If your child goes to a public elementary school, their teacher belongs to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the largest teacher union in Canada with some 83,000 members. It’s still at the bargaining table with OPSBA and the government, but will hold strike votes in the coming weeks to support its demands for more support for students with special needs, smaller class sizes and protection of full-day kindergarten. No talk of job action so far. @ETFOEducators on Twitter.
  • If your child goes to a public high school, their teachers belong to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), whose 60,000 members include teachers and some support staff including social workers and speech pathologists. It’s just starting talks with the government and OPSBA. No talk of job action here yet either. @osstf on Twitter.
  • If your child goes to an English-language Catholic school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, their teacher belongs to the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA.) It recently filed a complaint with the Ontario Labor Relations Board against the province for arbitrarily raising class size on its own, rather than through bargaining. Nevertheless, OECTA is still at the table. @OECTAProv on Twitter.

The situation is confusing and stressful, but one thing to remember is that our children are watching us. How we react to this uncertainty and change will model for them how to do the same. They’ll hear enough panic in the playground, from teacher-bashing to Ford-bashing. We might serve our kids best by keeping calm, giving them the facts and reminding them all players in this labour drama mean well. This turbulence is just part of the cycle of life in Ontario schools.

With files from the Canadian Press

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