After the Doug Ford government began butting heads with school boards in the spring of 2019 over changes to class sizes, a cancelled and effectively re-implemented health and physical education curriculum, job cuts, cancelled classes and more, many parents, students and educators wondered if a strike was on the horizon.
Fortunately, all students returned to school in Ontario on Sept. 3–but contracts with the unions representing teachers and education workers have expired and it’s not yet clear how the negotiations will play out.
As of now, no union is in a legal strike position. That means that, for the time being, classes will continue as usual.
Over the Labour Day long weekend, Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, issued a statement in response to the expiration of collective agreements.
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“Parents deserve predictability. They deserve to have peace of mind over the coming year. I stand with them and will be focused on delivering a deal that protects their children’s future, invests in their potential, and ultimately keeps them in the classroom, where they belong,” Lecce said.
“That is why since the spring, our government took the unprecedented step of providing teachers’ unions with an opportunity to begin early good faith bargaining to ensure certainty for parents, students, teachers and school staff for the upcoming school year. Since then, our government has continued its efforts to reach a deal and worked to expedite negotiations to drive an outcome before school starts that puts our students first.”
Lecce said that while students will begin school as normal, the government will work with unions to keep students in school throughout the year.
“Students will not face any disruptions to the start of their school year. Beyond that, we will continue to negotiate in good faith, and call on all parties to work harder to reach a deal that supports the needs of students – from mental health to a modern skills-focused curriculum – and keeps them in a positive learning environment throughout the year. Our kids deserve no less.”
However, some are disputing the province’s claim that it tried to start early negotiations.
Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), retweeted a “corrected” version of Lecce’s statement over the long weekend.
— Wendy Goodes (@WendyGoodes) September 1, 2019
In a tweet attributed to @OntarioFamiliesForPubliceEducation, the organization accuses the province of “spending the summer scaring parents about a strike.” The tweet also claims that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) gave notice to begin bargaining on April 29, prompting the province to begin hiring its bargaining team on May 2.
“The deadline to apply was May 23. You never had any intention to bargain early,” the tweet reads.
In an open letter to parents and families of Ontario’s schoolchildren, CUPE, the union that represents 55,000 education workers, laid out the reasons that its members are preparing for potential labour disruption in September.
The letter cites students’ right to “a high-quality, well-supported, and well-rounded public education” as one of the primary reasons that CUPE members are taking part in strike votes immediately after students return to class.
The province-wide votes by rank-and-file CUPE members are scheduled to take place between September 3 to 15.
CUPE says a strong “yes” vote would give the union’s bargaining team – now in conciliation with the province and the Council of Trustees’ Associations – a mandate for job action if contract negotiations break down.
Earlier this month, CUPE school board leaders approved a plan for job action.
“Because of the Ford government’s cuts to education, it’s likely that your child’s school has lost education workers,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said in the letter.
“Not enough education assistants to support children with special needs. Not enough custodians to keep schools clean and healthy. Not enough maintenance workers to tackle a backlog of repairs. Not enough school secretaries to monitor who’s in the building. Not enough psychologists, child and youth workers, or social workers to nurture vulnerable kids. Not enough music, language or arts instructors to connect students to the world beyond the classroom.”
But while no strike is imminent yet, experts are warning that labour disruptions are possible.
In fact, Maurice Mazerolle, an associate professor at Ryerson University and the director of its Centre for Labour Management Relations, told CBC News that the odds that all the contracts will be settled without labour disruption are “very slim.”
“There are so many areas where there seem to be disagreements,” he told the news agency.
Harvey Bischof, president of the OSSTF, also painted a grim picture going into the school year in a Sept. 3 statement.
“We are facing the biggest threat to publicly funded education in a generation. We have no choice but to confront these challenges, together, with all the resolve we can muster. One hundred years of our Federation’s history has taught us that no one better understands what’s at stake. No one is better positioned to defend our schools,” Bischof said.
“I hope you and the students you work with have as good a start to the school year as possible under these trying circumstances. Your time and dedication to publicly funded education make all the difference.”
Negotiations will take place through September.