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Elementary teachers will go back to bargaining table as twice-weekly strikes loom
Jan. 29, 2020
Kristin Rushowy

The province and the public elementary teachers’ union will return to the bargaining table on Wednesday.

The surprise announcement came Tuesday afternoon, a day after the 83,000-member Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it would begin striking two days a week, starting next week, if no deal is reached.

The mediator asked the union, province and school board associations to return to negotiations.

ETFO president Sam Hammond said they would be “open exploratory talks,” but that the Ford government’s negotiators “must include a mandate to remove further cuts, increase supports for students with special needs, preserve the current kindergarten model with a teacher and designated early childhood educator, and maintain fair and transparent hiring practices.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said “we look forward to the opportunity to negotiate to reach a voluntary settlement that ends the union-led escalation that is hurting so many students.”

Lecce said the government’s goal “has always been to reach a negotiated settlement that keeps kids in class, which we have done successfully” with two education staff unions so far.

“Our hope is the union will come to the table with realistic proposals that prioritize student success over compensation demands.”

ETFO says the talks are “a potentially positive development,” but that strikes dates set for next week -- including a province-wide walkout next Thursday -- are still a go unless a deal is reached by this Friday.

The union representing 45,000 Catholic teachers also announced that a province-wide strike is planned for next Tuesday, its second this year.

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said she’s “hopeful” that talks with ETFO might break the impasse, but “I have learned with this government to say let’s wait until tomorrow. Let’s wait and see what comes from this.”

She said OECTA has had just one day of bargaining this month, but “we are happy to re-engage once it becomes a true discussion.”

She said her union, which represents elementary and secondary teachers, has opted for province-wide strikes as opposed to rotating strikes in order to minimize confusion among parents.

“Unfortunately, we felt we needed to do a second day” and set up picket lines at all Catholic boards next week, Stuart said, adding Tuesday was chosen so as not to interfere with parent-teacher interviews later in the week.

She said the union is mindful of the impact on families, who need to find child care, and “what we’ve tried to do is give as much notice as we can -- we’ve given more than the five days” required.

So far, she added, the feedback her members have heard from parents mirrors public opinion polls, which show the Ford government plans for education to be unpopular.

On Monday, the elementary teachers union announced that it would also up its job action with rotating one-day strikes to hit all of its boards next week, as well as a one-day province-wide walkout on Thursday.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has been holding weekly, one-day rotating “Wednesday walkouts,” but it is taking a break this week for exams. No new dates have been announced, though they are expected.

Lecce has also slammed the elementary teachers’ union for including teachers who work in hospitals or treatment centres with special-needs students in its upcoming walkouts.

“I find it particularly disturbing that ETFO has decided to withdraw services from schools in hospitals for vulnerable and sick students,” he said in a statement. “This isn’t about politics, it’s about basic decency.”

The Ontario Principals’ Council has reached out to Lecce to say it is “concerned about the impact the situation is having in our schools and on our students” and urge negotiations to resume.

They are also opposed to the province’s plans for mandatory e-learning in high schools, as are teachers, and are also seeking a commitment to the full-day kindergarten program.

The teachers are also fighting larger class sizes, which will phase out thousands of teaching positions and course options for teens.