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Education union heads speak ahead of mass teachers’ protest in Ontario

Ontario’s public and Catholic school teachers will protest today at the legislature to coincide with a province-wide strike that will leave about two million students out of class.

The job action by the four major teachers unions shuts down schools across Ontario. Teachers and education workers will be picketing at various schools and politicians’ offices across the province but, in Toronto, the legislature is the only picket location.

The unions say that means as many as 30,000 people will attend. Legislative security is bracing for a large crowd and has said the road around the building will be closed.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) says the aim of today’s action is to demonstrate unity and force the government back to the bargaining table.

“I think today it will accomplish a demonstration of unity,” Bischof said Friday on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

“When you have a government that claims there is a division between the rank-and-file leadership and the union membership when no such division exists — when you have a government that claims that there is a division between parents and educators when overwhelmingly parents support not just our positions but our actions — then I think a demonstration of unity is absolutely vital to show that the government’s messaging is false … and it puts additional pressure on them to get back to the table.”

Bischof said he hopes the job action sends a message to the government.

“The minister of education points the finger of blame at everybody but himself,” Bischof told The Canadian Press. “What’s clear in this historic event is that the common denominator for all of the chaos in Ontario’s publicly funded education system is the destructive Ford education agenda.”

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and the French public teachers’ union are actively bargaining with the province and both met with provincial negotiators on Thursday. But the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) last met with the province on Jan. 31, and Bischof’s union has not been at the table with the province since mid-December.

“The only place to take the wage issue off the table is in fact at the table. And given that the government has not signalled to the mediator that they’re prepared to bargain productively there, we haven’t been at the table for over two months,” Bischof told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

“When we get to the table we’ll have the opportunity to do the kind of creative problem solving that’s meant to occur in negotiations but we need a willing partner.”

‘It’s difficult on the kids,’ parent says

Neha Hans, while dropping off her son at a day camp in Mississauga, said she hopes the unions and the government come to a resolution soon.

“It’s been … bad because we just have to find day camps every single time to get to, and it’s difficult on the kids,” she told CBC News.

“One day it’s school, the other day it’s not. Getting them settled back in school is very, very difficult.”

Parent Neha Hans says she hopes the unions and the government reach an agreement soon. (CBC)

This is the first time since 1997 that teachers and education workers from Ontario’s main education unions will all be out of their classrooms on the same day, the unions say.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce called Friday’s job action “deeply concerning,” particularly when considering the impact on parents and children.

“I think the mission of the government, given the parents of this province have been very clear that they don’t want their children’s education to be compromised and they don’t want their lives to be upended, is that all parties have an obligation to stay at the table and get a deal,” Lecce told Metro Morning.

Lecce said he wants union leaders to heed the concerns of parents who want their children in school.

“We want to get a deal. Obviously this cannot go on forever and I think the people of this province have been clear that this is having real impacts on their lives. We do not lose sight of that,” he said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he wants union leaders to heed the concerns of parents who want their children in school. (CBC)

Members of the four unions in Peel Region also plan to hold a mass picket, with teachers set to form a 30-kilometre line from Caledon down to the lakeshore in Mississauga.

Lecce has been signalling flexibility on class sizes — one of the most contentious issues in ongoing negotiations, particularly for secondary teachers. He has said he would rather make further moves on class sizes than on compensation for teachers.

Premier Doug Ford’s government announced last spring it would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.

Lecce has since offered to instead increase average high school class sizes to 25 and require two online learning courses, but the unions have been pressing for no class size increases and for no mandatory e-learning courses.

All the teachers’ unions are asking for around two per cent in annual salary increases, while the government won’t budge beyond offering one per cent. It passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years.

The teachers’ unions and several others are fighting the law in court, arguing it infringes on collective bargaining rights.

CBC

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