BY ALEX GREGORY AND SUNJIT SINGH FLORA
A protester holding an Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) flag pickets in front of John Fraser Secondary School on Dec. 11, 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Lindsay Sutherland/Twitter) More than 40,000 high school teachers across the province and 15,000 support staff from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) marched in and around schools as part of a work-to rule campaign Wednesday, in a bid to force the Ford government to reverse course on planned cuts and class size changes.
While Peel secondary schools remained open, John Fraser Secondary School in Mississauga was one of several sites throughout the region where teachers and union reps marched to show solidarity with the movement, which stems from stalled contract negotiations. Union leaders have blamed the PC government for not moving fast enough to negotiate. Wednesday’s protest is the second held in the last two weeks, with a Dec. 4 strike being the first for OSSTF in more than 20 years. Workers voted 92 per cent in favour of strike action, and led information pickets and a limited withdrawal of administrative services that began on Nov. 26. Union president Harvey Bisch of, who attended protests at constituency offices and schools in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York throughout the day, said that the government’s proposed policies are “eroding the quality of education.”
“Education Minister Stephen Lecce continues to ignore our education workers, many of whom work with our most vulnerable and neediest students, and keep our schools functioning,” Bischof said in a statement Monday. “He needs to be more respectful of the job these workers do.” Both the union and PC government said Wednesday evening that they will be heading back to the negotiating table next week. “We need to be making this more about students, and less about compensation,” Lecce said during an interview Wednesday morning. “Increasing the narrative is how we can expand benefits and salaries for workers, and I appreciate that. I think we pay them well, (and) I think we should be making more investments in mental health, in math supports and in / improving our schools.
That’s where the focus ought to be.” Compensation continues to be a sticking point between both sides, with the teachers’ union asking for a two per cent annual wage increase, while the province is aiming for a one per cent increase. Both parties are disagreeing over the proposed impact to the province’s line, with the union stating that the requested increases would cost $200 million, while the province states that the same increases would cost $1.5 billion over the next four years. During a press conference held Tuesday at Queen’s Park, Lecce also claimed that the union’s proposed demands would cost the province $7 billion over the next three years. Both the union and the province give slightly different figures for the average Ontario teacher’s annual salary.
According to AFP Factcheck, the figure lies in the $87,000-90,000 range. The issue of increased class sizes in high schools has also dominated discussions, with the proposed education minister Lisa Thompason last spring, asking for an average class size of 28, up from 22. The move caused a ripple effect throughout schools in Peel and beyond, with elective courses being cancelled and job losses at school boards throughout the province. Ontario’s financial accountability officer, Peter Weitman, said Monday that the province could save approximately $900 million per year if it were to pursue their original plan, though it appears that the proposal has been softened to an average of 25 per class.
Teachers have said any increase in class sizes will compromise the quality of the education system, and the OSSTF is pushing back against the proposed changes in bargaining. In a statement Wednesday, provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath called out Premier Doug Ford for focusing on cuts while ignoring the needs of teachers and parents. “This government has been laser-focused on one thing, and that is making anybody but themselves for the fallout,” she said. “Teachers, students, and parents have all been clear… cancel the cuts.” /
Horwath’s sentiments were also echoed by Green Party leader Mike Schreiner earlier this week. “If the government would reverse their cuts, then we could have a good-faith negotiation around salaries,” Schreiner said. “The government is trying to use compensation as a way to deflect from the real cuts to education.” OSSTF said that it had it made it clear to the province that they would postpone the strike and agree to third-party arbitration if the planned class size changes were reversed and mandatory online learning courses were scrapped. Bischof said that the union’s next response will depend on the province’s actions, and said they haven’t ruled out the possibility of further strike actions. “It’s one that I hope we never have to get to,” he said.