Schools to close Friday as Ontario elementary teachers stage one-day protest

Maria Babbage, The Canadian Press
Associated Press

TORONTO - Many public elementary schools in Ontario will shut their doors Friday when tens of thousands of elementary teachers and education workers walk out over the governing Liberals' decision to impose new collective agreements.

The Toronto District School Board — the largest in Canada — along with other boards plan to close their primary schools.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario insists it's not a strike, but a one-day political protest that's protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"This has nothing to do with revenge or anger," ETFO president Sam Hammond said Wednesday. "This has to do with principled positions in terms of democracy in this province and in this country."

But Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten said teachers are not allowed to walk out of class, since they're no longer in a legal strike position. But she wouldn't say what kind of penalties they could face.

"I can't speak to any decision the labour relations board would make," she said.

"What I can say is that any strike action would be illegal. Teachers should understand that, and again, I urge union leadership not to ask their teachers to undertake illegal activity."

Engaging in illegal strike activity can carry a penalty of up to $2,000 per person and $20,000 for a trade union, according to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. They would only be fined if the board determined it was an unlawful strike, gave consent to prosecute and a court agreed with the board's finding.

The union had offered a truce to the Liberals, promising to hold off on any action if they didn't use their controversial anti-strike law to force new contracts before a new premier is chosen Jan. 26.

Instead, Broten imposed collective agreements Jan. 3 on 126,000 public school educators, which cut their benefits and froze most of their wages to battle the province's $14.4-billion deficit.

She promised to repeal the law that allowed her to impose the contracts by the end of the month. But Hammond said it's an empty gesture when she's already used it to trample on teachers' rights.

"I would say to anyone who says let this go, let bygones be bygones: That's not going to happen," he said.

The protest is what his 76,000 members want, Hammond said. They may demonstrate outside schools, politicians' offices or decide on another location.

The union can't fine any of its members if they don't participate, because it's a protest, not a strike, he said.

There are no plans for further protests, but Hammond said he's not ruling anything out.

"Quite frankly, with this minister, there is nothing to talk about," he said. "She took a very provocative and disgraceful step in terms of implementing terms and conditions on Jan. 3. And frankly, there's nothing left to talk about."

However, Hammond said he would sit down and talk with a new premier.

The contracts were also imposed on public high school teachers, who are expected to maintain their boycott of extracurricular activities.

Top brass at the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation were to meet Wednesday, but president Ken Coran was not available for comment.

However, the union posted a message on its website Monday saying while teachers wouldn't strike, "voluntary or extracurricular activities will not resume."

The fight has come at a political cost to the Liberals, who have alienated a powerful group that's helped them stay in power for nine years.

But the showdown has helped them reach agreements with other public sector workers.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 38,000 public servants, announced Wednesday that it had struck a two-year tentative agreement with the province.

The government said it includes a commitment to implement a two-year wage freeze, but details won't be released until the agreement is ratified. Those votes are scheduled for Jan. 21-23.

It's not a perfect agreement and OPSEU members may not like it, said union president Warren "Smokey" Thomas. But it was the best deal they could make when the government seemed "very willing" to legislate contracts.

"In our opinion, it's better to bargain something than have it imposed," Thomas said. "Frankly, if it had been imposed, both sides usually end up being pretty unhappy."

The government should grow a backbone and make sure the unions who violate the law are punished, said Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod.