By Daniel Nolan • Metroland West Media Group
Public elementary schools across Hamilton and Halton will be closed Friday because of a one-day walkout by elementary teachers and education workers. And, Ontario high school teachers announced late Wednesday they too will walk off the job for a day on Jan. 16, five days after the elementary teachers. The move will close schools for more than 400,000 students in the province's public English-language high schools.
They will be part of a shutdown of schools across Ontario due to the action by teachers and workers, which count in the tens of thousands, in protest over the government’s decision to impose new collective agreements at the start of the year under its controversial Bill 115.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario insists the job action is a political protest that’s protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty described the protest as an illegal strike because contracts are now in place. He promised the government would go to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Thursday to stop it.
Education Minister Laurel Broten urged union leaders not to ask teachers to break the law, noting 60 ratified local agreements were submitted to the government before the deadline of Dec. 31.
Engaging in illegal strike activity can carry a penalty of up to $2,000 per person and $20,000 for a trade union, according to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. They would only be fined if the board determined it was an unlawful strike, gave consent to prosecute and a court agreed with the board's finding.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board issued a statement Wednesday afternoon shortly after the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario announced the walkout.
“We apologize for this inconvenience to families at HWDSB,” Hamilton board chair Tim Simmons said in a statement. “Without our teachers, we can’t keep our schools safe for students and must cancel classes and transportation at all elementary schools on Friday.”
It advises parents to make alternate childcare arrangements, but noted childcare services offered in the board’s schools will continue to operate for those students already registered in the program.
Classes will resume on Monday, Jan. 14, and the boards noted secondary schools are not affected by the protest.
The protest comes as provincial leaders with ETFO met to determine how to respond to Bill 115, which imposed on Jan. 3 a two-year wage freeze and curbed benefits like bankable sick days.
“The minister made a deliberate and provocative choice to wipe out the democratic rights of tens of thousands of educators rather than work toward a respectful solution,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond in a statement. “She could have taken our olive branch and waited for a new leader to try and find solutions, but she chose not to.”
Hammond, who is a Hamilton teacher, noted 92 per cent of more than 46,000 union members who cast a vote last month back in December supported “a one-day political protest” should the minister impose contracts using Bill 115.
“This protest is aimed squarely at the government and education minister, not those school boards who pursued legal collective bargaining with our locals,” Hammond said. “It is shameful that the minister tied their hands with the limiting parameters of Bill 115. The government can prorogue the legislature, but it can’t prorogue democracy.”
Ontario PC education critic Lisa MacLeod posted on her Twitter account: “If ETFO walks off the job Friday, Laurel Broten must respond to this illegal job action with the fullest extent of the law.”
“The government has the authority to fine those participating in wildcat strikes.”