Elementary schools across Ottawa were shut down on Dec. 12 as thousands of teachers with the English public school board held a one-day strike to protest Bill 11.
The legislation gives the education minister the power to impose a contract on thousands of workers if unions and school boards can’t reach local agreements before Dec. 31.
Modelled on an agreement the province reached with the unions representing Catholic teachers, the bill freezes wages, ends the banking of sick days and cuts other benefits.
The unions say it strips members of their democratic right to collectively bargain a new contract.
Teachers picketed outside 63 Ottawa elementary schools as well as outside the public board office and the offices of six area MPPs. The walkout of teachers from 117 schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was one of several rotating strikes held across the province last week.
At Stephen Leacock Public School in Beaverbrook, a group of 19 full- and part-time teachers carried handmade signs protesting Bill 115, legislation they say takes away their collective bargaining rights.
Money was never an issue, said Sue Bingham, the picket captain for teachers at Stephen Leacock.
“We had already agreed to a pay freeze,” she said. “It was never about a pay freeze.”
Sick leave was another sore point.
“We have sick children coming to school,” said Bingham. “Teachers get sick. Some of them have already used up a lot of their sick days for the year because they only have 10.”
Picketers drank hot coffee and paced in front of their schools, trying to keep warm with temperatures hovering around -10 C.
At W. Erskine Johnston, teachers gauged their support by the number of honks from passing motorists.
“Twenty nine,” said one picketer after a car passed by Wednesday morning.
“Thirty one,” corrected another picketer walking beside her.
But while the teachers are out on the picket lines, the education minister is being urged by her colleagues to use the legislation affords her.
“I feel obligated as official Opposition critic to remind you of your responsibilities as minister and the tools that you have at your disposal within Bill 115 to re-impose some semblance of order in our schools,” Nepean-Carleton MPP MacLeod wrote in an open letter to Education Minister Laurel Broten.
In a statement released by the education minister’s office, Premier Dalton McGuinty said a legal one-day strike action didn’t warrant the government’s intervention.
“It is worth noting that while students will miss an entire day of class, and teachers will spend one entire day on the picket line and lawyers will spend weeks preparing their case, (teachers union) leadership have spent less than an hour in the last 10 months at the negotiating table, which I continue to believe is the best place to resolve the issue,” McGuinty said.
Broten has said the provincial government will impose a new contract on thousands of teachers and support staff if their unions don’t negotiate deals by the end of the month.
Ottawa-Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation president Peter Giuliani scoffed at the deadline.
“Apparently we all turn into pumpkins on Dec. 31,” he said. “That is a completely artificial deadline. She made it up because her first deadline, which was Aug. 31, was so laughable that she had to step back from it.
“She’s going to do what she’s going to do,” said Giuliani, speaking outside W.Erskine Johnston Public School, where he made a brief stop to talk to picketers.
But the union leader said the deadline won’t deter teachers’ work action.
“If she does it we’ll deal with it next, because this is not going away.”
Teachers say their biggest issue is that Bill 115 takes away their collective bargaining rights.
“It’s about democracy,” said Giuliani. “It’s not about money.”
Giuliani said teachers have not received as many complaints as they expected over their refusal to participate in extracurricular clubs, activities and sports.
“We’ve been asking parents to consider this: if you’d been a volunteer in the community for 10 years and you suddenly stopped doing it and said ‘Thank you very much.’ Wouldn’t you normally get a plaque and a gift certificate to Denny’s?
“These are teachers who’ve been doing this for 10 years for free,” he said. “Have you ever called and said, ‘Thank you?’”
Teachers have been volunteering their spare time to supervise extracurricular activities, said Giuliani.
“So show some understanding,” he said. “Show some appreciation that you’ve had all this free community service.”
Giuliani said teachers could potentially withdraw from supervising extracurricular activities for two years.
“I think that’s a fair worry. I think that’s a really fair worry.”
Bingham, a teacher at Stephen Leacock, said teachers enjoy volunteering their spare time to run extracurricular activities.
“It’s something we love to do with children,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to do them. It’s that we don’t have many options left thanks to Bill 115. Our hands are tied. There’s only so many services we can withdraw.”
Bingham said teachers are determined to fight until Bill 115 is repealed.
“If that means voluntary activities are dropped for the next two years than that may be it,” she said. “I’m not sure what our union has planned. If that’s all we have to fight with than that’s what we’ll be using.”
With files from Jennifer McIntosh