On the evening of February 21, Friday, nearly 200,000 teachers and education workers participated in a massive strike across the Canadian province of Ontario. All four major trade unions representing educational workers joined hands to organize a strike for the first time since 1997. The four unions are the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) and Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).
The strike is meant to bring the provincial government, led by right-wing Conservative Party premier Doug Ford, to the bargaining table over the work contracts of the teachers. The unions have accused the government of sidelining one set of educational workers and “playing games” during the ongoing bargaining process between the unions and the educational boards.
Thousands of striking teachers marched to Queen’s Park, adjacent to the provincial legislature, in the capital, Toronto.
Speaking to the media at Queen’s Park on behalf of all the leaders of the four unions, OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said “(t)his is a demonstration of unity. It’s a demonstration that we’re not divided from our members or from the public in this province.”
The unions are currently in the process of bargaining with the government over the controversial proposal of significantly increasing class sizes from an average of 22 to 28, which has not been received well by the unions. According to the People’s Voice, the OSSTF has argued that the move will actually mean a 25% reduction in the number of teachers and even as there won’t be too much of an increase in the number of students.
The ETFO, on the other hand, is also seeking a “fair demand” for elementary schooling which includes funds to recruit more special education teachers and maintain a full-day kindergarten service in the next few years. The ETFO has argued that elementary schools have been neglected under the present government. Both the ETFO and OSSTF have complained that the government has not spoken to them in the bargaining process since January and December, respectively.
The unions are also currently demanding for an average of 2% hike in wages, which has been an especially contentious issue for public sector workers. In December, the provincial legislature passed a law freezing all public sector wages at 1%, which is being challenged by the unions in the court.
The strike has affected over 72 school boards in the province and over 2 million students. More state-wide joint actions have been planned by the unions for February 24 and 28, which will include a walk-out protest in some of the boards.