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Ontario Teachers’ Strike: Looking Beyond Wednesday

The Dec 4th one-day strike closed schools across the province. What happens next?

by Fernando Arce

Teachers and their supporters gather outside the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto the evening of Tuesday, Dec 3. Contract negotiations were taking place inside. Photo: Fernando Arce.
Teachers and their supporters gather outside the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto the evening of Tuesday, Dec 3. Contract negotiations were taking place inside. Photo: Fernando Arce.
Jennifer Hann with her children outside the Sheraton. Photo: Fernando Arce.
Jennifer Hann with her children outside the Sheraton. Photo: Fernando Arce.

Wednesday’s teacher strike action which forced more than 600 high schools to close across the province was a one-day event, for now. But according to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and its allies, they are ready to continue striking and protesting for as long as it takes the government to reverse cuts to the public education system.

While the OSSTF is ready to engage with the provincial government in negotiations, Vice President Paul Caccamo tells the Media Co-op, they will not accept anything that is “riddled with massive cuts” that will affect classroom sizes and curricula across the province.

So “what happens after [Wednesday’s strike] is really up to this government,” he said Tuesday night outside the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto where negotiations were happening. Outside, a group of parents and teachers had gathered in support of the teachers and the then-looming strike.

“Are they prepared to backtrack as parents are screaming tonight for them to do? Or are they prepared to pursue a plan and agenda that is baseless and not supported by Ontario parents or any of the data that seems to be proliferating around?”

While some disruption caused by the closure of more than 600 high schools across the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board is to be expected, accepting the government’s proposals would have far worse and lasting consequences for both teachers and students, Caccamo added.

“What is far more significant is the impacts that these cuts are going to have in the short, medium and long term in Ontario,” he said. “The bottom line is the cost of [Wednesday’s action] is a fraction as it would compare to the cost of what these cuts are going to do to classrooms in this province.”

Dangerous schools

Ana Jessup, an elementary school teacher for more than 15 years who attended Tuesday's demonstration outside the Sheraton, said cuts to the education system have created a breeding ground for bullying, physical violence and social exclusion as support staff, including counselors, are laid off.

“Our schools are so understaffed, so de-staffed from decades of cutbacks that they’re becoming dangerous,” she said at the demonstration, accompanied by her young daughter. “I see this as a parent and I see this as a teacher."

Jennifer Hann, a mother of two young girls at Tuesday's event, agreed the trend was worrisome.

"My kids are going to be in high school before I know it," she said. "And if that's what's happening in the first budget, what's going to happen in elementary school on their next one?"

As a teacher, Jessup has seen the cumulative effects that cuts to social services have had on society over the years. Ford's attacks, she said, are only the latest iteration of an ongoing agenda of austerity and neo-liberalism.

“This is about something bigger,” she said. “It’s about neoliberal austerity: cutting health, social housing education, putting our neighbours on the street and putting our kids in unsafe classroom situations across this province. I see these issues coalescing.”

Misrepresenting the truth

For the OSSTF, wages, class sizes, course offerings and supports for students with special needs have been the main focus at the bargaining table -- things that have either been cut or affected by Ford’s neo-liberal agenda. 

Since August, Ontario public high school teachers have therefore been operating without a contract as the two sides try to hammer out a deal. On November 26, teachers entered the first day of a work-to-rule campaign across the province after making no headway, which meant withdrawing some administrative services including comments on report cards, the CBC reported.

But none of that seemed to affect Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, who has reportedly been absent from most of the bargaining sessions.

That’s why on the evening of Tuesday, a day before the strike, Lecce took many by surprise by claiming that the OSSTF had refused the government’s latest “framework” at the negotiating table.

OSSTF Vice President Caccamo said, “unequivocally, that…no such offer” had been made. This had been confirmed, he added, by their mediator earlier on Tuesday after hearing Lecce’s claims.

“And [the mediator's] answer was ‘absolutely not’,” said Caccamo outside the Sheraton. “So the Minister is either misrepresenting the truth, or he’s getting his information from an unreliable source.”

Hann, who was also at the event with her two young daughters,  was more blunt.

“It’s all lies,” said Hann, whose husband  is a high school teacher and was one of the speakers at the event. “There is no proposal…There is a lot of lying here, and that’s not what we want in Ontario, that’s not what we want for our children.”

Solidarity needed

Tuesday’s event was organized by the Ontario Parent Action Network to support the striking teachers and to help organize and mobilize the growing network of parents. Offering free pizza to anyone who was hungry, demonstrators demanded a stop to massive increases of class sizes, a stop to the mandatory e-learning plan, and a restoration of supports for students with special needs imposed by the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford.

"The Ontario public is standing in solidarity with teachers because we're the last thing standing between this government's destructive plan for the education system and the students in the classrooms their children spent the day in," said Caccamo.

Inside the hotel, negotiators for both sides had been bargaining, hoping to come to a compromise by midnight. But with the notable absence of Lecce at the bargaining table, the strike was practically a foregone conclusion by the evening, when the event took place.

Parents and teachers in attendance, however, were solid in their support for teachers and the unions fighting for them.

If the strike means having to scramble for babysitters or arrange for daycare, said Hann, her family “will figure it out.”As she sees it, the strike is “really only the start.”

“Obviously, it’s the small ones we want to protect, and the teachers do not want to be on strike. But if they have to, to maintain this level of education that we need, they’re going to do it. And, as a parent, that’s why I’m here. I fully support that.”

Beyond Wednesday

What will happen beyond Wednesday, or whether the strike will influence the government's position, remains unclear.

But neither teachers nor parents appear to be budging in their resolve.

In fact, more actions like Tuesday's are already in the works, said Jessup. For systemic change to be achieved, she added, parent mobilization needs to become a constant and organized thorn for whichever government occupies Queen's Park.

“It’s about parents pulling out a piece of paper, name, email, phone number, get the contact information of your fellow parents at school council,” she said. 

“We cannot focus exclusively on elections. We need to build the democratic infrastructure that we expect for our children.”

 

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