Etobicoke elementary teachers walked off the job along with thousands of their colleagues from across Toronto, Durham and Peel for the “Super Tuesday” strike action this week.
In total, more than 20,000 public elementary teachers from GTA Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO) locals took to the picket lines on Tuesday – making it the largest day-long action to ever hit Ontario.
At Hilltop Middle School in central Etobicoke, more than a dozen teachers bearing signs reading “Respect Teachers, Respect Collective Bargaining” took the morning shift, picketing in front of the Trehorne Drive school and up and down Royal York Road.
“We absolutely feel good that we’re standing together, we’re strong and we’re not going to back down,” said the Hilltop protestors’ spokesperson, Mara, a teacher at the school who declined to give her last name. “What’s at stake? That’s a huge question. What’s at stake is our collective bargaining rights,” she added.
“I don’t know how else to put it.”
Particularly at issue for the protesting teachers is Bill 115, also known as the Putting Students First Act, which requires all school boards, teachers and support staff to negotiate local agreements “consistent with the government’s fiscal and policy priorities” by Dec. 31.
Demands on teachers include: zero per cent salary increases over the next two years; that all teachers, principals and vice-principals take three unpaid leave days on designated professional development days in 2013-14; elimination of the banked sick days that the Ministry of Education said was responsible for a $1.7 billion liability for school boards; and a restructured short-term sick leave plan that would include up to 10 sick days at full pay, and 120 days at reduced pay.
Tuesday’s strike action against Bill 115 was the largest of a series of one-day teachers’ strikes at school boards across the province launched last Monday by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (EFTO), which represents more than 76,000 teachers, occasional teachers, and education professionals employed in Ontario public elementary schools. EFTO President Sam Hammond said the protests are a result of Education Minister Laurel Broten’s inaction to deal with the collective bargaining concerns of the province’s teachers.
“To date, the education minister has yet to do anything to assist local school boards in pursuing fair and respectful negotiations with our members,” Hammond said in a statement. “She can end the chaos she has created by repealing Bill 115 and letting local bargaining proceed without interference.”
Martin Long, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT), said the decision to strike in Toronto was a decision the local’s 11,707 Toronto District School Board employee members did not easily make.
“As the largest school board in the province, this is not an action that our members take lightly,” he said in a statement. “We have been forced into this action by an education minister who has willfully stripped educators of their legal right to collectively bargain.”
In a statement on the Ministry of Education’s website, however, Bill 115 was defended as a move that “put our students and our education system first and to put education on a more sustainable pathway.”
“In these challenging economic times, the government had a choice to increase pay and benefits for teachers or to spend on other important investments like full-day kindergarten, small class sizes, and preserving 20,000 teaching and support staff positions,” the statement reads, referring to Ontario’s current $15 billion deficit. Premier Dalton McGuinty also panned the EFTO’s series of one-day protests as disruptive of a nine-year stretch of relative labour peace.
“It’s regrettable that students miss any time learning, and it’s unfortunate that families will need to make alternate arrangements,” he said in a statement released last Monday. “While inconvenient, these one-day legal strike actions do not warrant the intervention of the government and are a small price to pay to protect full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and 10,000 teaching jobs.”
Back at Hilltop, the teachers said they were nevertheless getting lots of support from both their students and the wider community. “A lot of the kids have done their own research on the bill and they’ve come in and said that they support us.
They talked to their parents about what the bill consists of, why we’re striking and why the work-to-rule. So they understood and they told us ‘you need to do what you need to do” – that’s been the response,” said Mara.
“We’ve had a lot of support from passersby today, too. People are definitely honking and they’re showing their support. We even had a CAW worker who was out with his flag this morning supporting us, so that was amazing, too.”