By ROGER BELGRAVE
Special to Focus
Both secondary and elementary school teachers at Peel’s public school board have conducted strike votes in the face of government legislation banning walkouts.
Members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) District 19 voted 94.2 per cent in favour of a strike, while the union’s Occasional Teacher Bargaining Unit also voted 91.4 per cent in favour of strike action. The unions represent high school teachers at the Peel District School Board.
Last week, the board’s elementary school teachers voted 95 per cent in favour of a strike, according to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO).
The votes were taken despite last month’s passing of the Liberal government’s Putting Students First Act. The legislation not only imposes two-year wage freezes, pay cuts and benefit reductions, it bans strikes for Ontario’s teachers and other workers in the education system looking for new labour deals after existing contracts expired Aug. 31.
The bill sets clear fiscal restraints as parameters for teachers’ unions and school boards as they negotiate new contracts. School boards and teachers have until Dec. 31 to negotiate new deals.
Teachers’ unions have called the legislation unconstitutional and are launching a court challenge.
In the meantime, they have vowed to follow the bargaining process as outlined in the Labour Relations Act. That legislation gives the teachers the right to strike, but it still unclear whether they intend to take strike action.
OSSTF noted taking a strike vote is “part of the legal process” recognized by the Ontario Labour Relations Act.
“This vote is not about wanting a strike,” said Paul Elliott, OSSTF vice-president. “It is about using our rights recognized by law to bargain a collective agreement with the employer.”
There are “no decisions to take any job actions at this time,” insisted Elliott.
However, even he is interested to see how far the union will take its rights under the Labour Relations Act and perhaps ignore restrictions imposed under the Liberal government’s Bill 115. He suggested there might not be a full withdrawal of services by teachers, but some sort of work to rule might be possible.
Many teachers have already withdrawn from voluntary after school supervision duties— cancelling extracurricular activities for students at dozens of schools.
Union officials said the voting results demonstrate strong support from the rank and file for their negotiating teams. It also sends a clear message the unions intend to conduct bargaining under the process laid out in the Labour Relations Act.
OSSTF has also filed for conciliation. This step, under the Labour Relations Act, occurs when the employer or union asks the Ministry of Labour for help in resolving differences at the bargaining table.
Typically, it’s a step taken when the two sides have reached an impasse and is necessary before either side can legally take strike or lock out action.
The strong strike mandate from teachers reflects frustration with the government’s legislative interference in the usual collective bargaining process, said Elliott.
He insisted teachers were willing to work within the government’s financial parameters and legislative restraints were not necessary.
By ROGER BELGRAVE