Ontario high school teachers call off walkout in wake of OLRB ruling

The Globe and Mail

Hilton Barbour takes his daughters, four year old Savanna and Seven year old Monet to school in Toronto on Jan/ 11, 2013. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

A looming one-day strike by Ontario high school teachers next week has been called off, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Friday.

The news comes as parents absorb an early morning labour board ruling that caused school boards to decide at the last minute to open most of the province’s elementary and junior schools Friday, after what the premier called a “roller-coaster” ride that had parents scrambling for alternate arrangements.

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The labour board ruling prompted the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to call off a one-day walkout Friday. And, hours later, Mr. McGuinty said that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation had decided to cancel their walkout planned for Wednesday.

“I’m pleased to report that, just a few moments ago, we were advised … that OSSTF will not proceed with their job action,” the premier told reporters. “I want to thank the ETFO and OSSTF union leadership for acting responsibly in the face of the [Ontario Labour Relations Board] decision. This ruling now puts the remaining questions around Bill 115 squarely in the sphere of the courts. The courts will rule on the constitutionality of our legislation.”

The developments do little to restore labour peace in the province, though. Teachers are angry with the government for introducing Bill 115, the controversial legislation that freezes their wages, cuts their sick day benefits and bans them from striking.

Many teachers on Twitter expressed anger at the OLRB decision and vowed to keep withholding participation in voluntary activities, such as sports teams and clubs. But Mr. McGuinty appealed to the province's public school teachers not to boycott extracurriculars with students.

"If you want to withhold goodwill, withhold goodwill from the government," not students, Mr. McGuinty said.

The uncertainty over Friday classes came amid legal wrangling over the possibility of a one-day political protest by teachers. With the possibility that the gambit would be allowed, many boards – including Canada’s largest, the Toronto District School Board – had appeared resigned to closing for the day.

Even after the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled early Friday that the protest by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario would be an illegal strike, TDSB chairman Chris Bolton continued to say that the schools must be closed, according to CBC’s Metro Morning. Only minutes later, the board tweeted a brief message that schools would be open. Buses would not be running, though, because the logistics could not be arranged at the last minute.

Initial reaction on social media focused less on the hassle caused parents and more on the disappointment to children hoping for a long weekend.

"Unhappy kids after told school is back on & have to go," a person identified as Tracy Chisholm wrote on Twitter. " 'No school' day is utopia for kids - would be easier to tell them about Santa!"

Others were less amused. One person called the students, parent and teachers “pawns in ridiculous actions of ETFO/TDSB /WSRB/Minister of Education. All incompetent and disrespectful."

Speaking to CP24, ETFO President Sam Hammond called the frustration to parents “unfortunate” but noted that he had no say in whether the schools were to open Friday.

“I leave it up to the boards to make those decisions,” he said early Friday.

At Whitchurch Highlands Public School near Stouffville, Ont, many parents expressed mixed feelings Friday morning after the last-minute news that school would be open.

“My wife and I had to scramble a bit,” said a parent at the school, John, who requested his last name not be used. “We had grandparents coming up from Richmond Hill to take care of (the kids), and for what it’s worth they’re 75 and 80; we don’t want to inconvenience them.”

Regardless, John doesn’t blame the teachers for the current situation, but rather President of the Ontario Elementary Teachers’ Federation, Sam Hammond.

“He is absolutely to blame,” he said. “He could have given people a week’s notice - let people go through the process of the courts in a more reasonably timely fashion – and one can only believe that he made a strategic decision here that impacted families right across Ontario.”

Schools in York and Halton regions would also be open but not have bus service. Buses will be running in Durham and Peel regions, with classes continuing as usual. Other boards, including Waterloo, Peel, and Hastings Prince Edward, said they were monitoring the situation and could keep their schools open.

Bernard Fishbein, chairman of the Labour Board, handed down a written decision following an 11-hour hearing. Lawyers for the education ministry argued the planned one-day job action constituted an illegal strike and lawyers for the teachers countered that it was just a protest. Mr. Fishbein says in his decision he was not persuaded that the distinctions ETFO’s lawyers were making between an illegal job action and a protest were “sufficient or salient.”

The ETFO called off the one-day political protest shortly after 4 a.m. ET on Friday, just minutes after the Ontario Labour Relations Board handed down its ruling.

“My members are law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Hammond told reporters at the conclusion of the marathon labour board hearing. “There’s an expectation that our members will be at work.”

Mr. Hammond made it clear that his decision to call off the one-day protest does not in any way ease tensions between teachers and the government.

“It cannot be business as usual in our schools, and we will continue to do stand up for our democratic rights,” he said.

Elementary and high-school teachers have withdrawn their participation in sports teams and clubs, with union leaders indicating these activities could be withheld until the fall of 2014, the duration of the contract.

“It doesn’t end here,” Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, told reporters after the hearing. “We still have much work to do to rebuild a damaged relationship and a flawed negotiation process.”

If teachers had gone ahead with their one-day protest, they would have faced fines of $2,000. The union would have been fined $25,000.

With reports from The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso, Jill Mahoney and Kristina Virro, and from The Canadian Press