Thousands of angry teachers converged on Queen’s Park in protest Thursday as an Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing began — just blocks away — to determine if a strike in three school boards is legal.
The Durham, Peel and Rainbow/Sudbury boards are asking for a ruling that would put an end to their high school teachers’ walkouts and return students to class before the school year is lost.
But Heather Alden, lawyer for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, told labour board chair Bernard Fishbein that the case is a “fundamental attack” that seeks to “limit the charter rights” of teachers.
The boards are arguing the high school teachers’ job action is unlawful under new bargaining legislation because they’re striking locally over issues that are negotiated provincially, such as class size. The boards want teachers back in their classrooms. Some 70,000 students have been affected.
“Being entitled to strike locally does not entitle them (teachers) to strike over central issues,” argued lawyer Michael Hines, representing the school boards. Lawyers for both sides huddled in private for most of Thursday trying to come to agreement on what facts will be included in the case before Fishbein.
While the case has been deemed urgent by the strike-bound school boards, Fishbein chose not to impose a time limit on lawyers’ presentations, and allowed them to meet behind closed doors for more than six hours on procedural matters without even starting to present their arguments. The hearing is to resume Friday.
The first strike was called in Durham, where high schools have now been shut down for four weeks and concerns are growing about how 21,500 students — especially the 7,100 in Grade 12 — will make up the lost time.
Public high school teachers in Peel walked off the job last week affecting 42,000 students, and teachers in Rainbow/Sudbury joined the picket lines two weeks ago.
At the Queen’s Park rally, OSSTF president Paul Elliott told the crowd that the strikes were called over local issues, and the crowd booed when he mentioned the labour board case, the Toronto Star’s Richard J. Brennan reported.
Elliott said “teachers have had enough” and called on the provincial government to “put its foot down to get the boards moving.”
Secondary teachers are upset over a provincial proposal to make changes to class size caps, which boards say they need for flexibility.
A few Durham teachers said privately that they hope the labour board forces them back to work, but added they are upset with the government and would not vote Liberal again.
The three boards that launched the labour board case believe the strikes are based on “central” issues and not local ones, and say that’s not allowed under the new bargaining legislation.
Bill 122 details a two-tiered bargaining system, with costly items such as class size and salary hammered out centrally between the province, the school boards’ association and the provincial unions. Local issues such as performance appraisals or grievance procedures are negotiated between individual boards and union districts.
Talks at both levels have been strained; the high school teachers, as well as the province’s elementary teachers, have walked away from provincial bargaining saying they oppose the concessions the government and school boards have put forward.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said the labour relations board hearing “does not affect other boards, other unions or negotiations at the central table.”
“It is up to the OLRB as an independent tribunal, to hear the evidence and issue a ruling about whether the local (high school teacher union) strikes at these three boards are deemed to be illegal based on the School Board Collective Bargaining Act.”
Meanwhile, unions representing the province’s Catholic and French teachers remain at the table.
The Catholic teachers’ union recently sent out a bargaining update listing 12 upcoming dates for talks.
“If we are unable to secure a fair and just agreement, we will move forward and apply for conciliation,” said the update. “This would likely place us in a provincial strike position in September, a more realistic and tactically superior time to commence any type of action than mid-June.”
The province’s public elementary teachers’ union has launched a work-to-rule campaign, refusing to administer standardized tests or provide report card comments.
On Thursday, EQAO standardized testing was cancelled at schools hit by work-to-rule or strikes.
- With files from Robert Benzie