By Stew Slater
The Province of Ontario’s ongoing battle with its teachers, which had so far been unfolding without significant effects on parents or students in Huron and Perth Counties, took a foreboding turn this week. Just over 600 members of the Avon Maitland local of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) union — including full-time and occasional teachers — began what is legally referred to as a “strike” by committing only to working during regular classroom hours.
“Whenever we do a concerted job action, it falls under the legal definition of a strike,” explained ETFO Local President Merlin Leis, in an interview Monday with the Journal Argus.
Members of the Avon Maitland Local voted 97 per cent in favour of job action back on Oct. 3. After a legally-required session with a conciliator and the subsequent issuing of a “no board report,” the teachers were in a legal strike position effective Monday, Dec. 3.
“Starting this week, teachers will be in the classroom during regular school day hours, but they will be withdrawing from most other activities,” said Leis.
Teachers have been without a contract with the Avon Maitland District School Board since Aug. 31.
In September, the minority Liberals achieved passage of Bill 115, which dictates many terms and conditions in any future teacher collective agreements, as well as scaling back the unions’ collective bargaining rights. Ever since Bill 115 was passed, there have been limited withdrawals of service by certain locals across the province.
“Extra-curricular activities have always been voluntary, and when Bill 115 was passed . . . some ETFO members decided they would not be volunteering for those activities under the circumstances,” the union local president said.
Then in November, on a province-wide basis, all ETFO members followed through on advice from their provincial leadership, and provided what Leis described as a “bare-bones” version of the annual Progress Report for students.
Now that they’re in a legal strike position, however, there are additional avenues through which teachers can express their displeasure. That includes this week’s withdrawal from things like after-hours meetings with parents, as well as the provincial union’s planned rotating one-day walkouts.
Leis could not say when teachers in Huron and Perth Counties would walk off the job. But he said it would happen, barring any progress in contract negotiations, some time between now and Christmas. The Avon Maitland District School Board will be given 72 hours notice, and all schools in the board will be affected on the same day. Pickets will be set up, but Leis couldn’t say where.
“We don’t take this lightly,” he told the Journal Argus. “We’re not sure why the (Education) Minister is pursuing this strategy. I think we have to have some discussions provincially . . . And I’m just hoping the Minister will stop playing games and come to the table with some serious willingness to negotiate.”
For the long term, Leis says he can’t predict what will happen. Part of Bill 115, he notes, was a clause stating the Minister will impose a settlement on any union local which has not come to agreement with its school board by Dec. 31. If things remain they way they are now, he can’t see a local settlement in the near future.
“And I have no idea what (ETFO’s) response will be at that time.”