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Waterdown students stage walkout over labour unrest

By Dianne Cornish • REVIEW STAFF

As the labour dispute between the Ontario government and public board teachers escalates, students at Waterdown District High School (WDHS) walked out of their classrooms Monday to show their discontent with the labour strife and how it is impacting their lives.

RELATED: Hamilton students urged to stay in class while protesting Bill 115

An estimated 500 WDHS students joined hundreds of their peers from Dunnville to Burlington, in the protest. The walkouts took place on the first day of work-to-rule action by Ontario’s secondary teachers as they continue to fight for the restoration of their collective bargaining rights threatened by the passage of Bill 115 by the Ontario government in September.

“For students to bear the brunt of this is not right,” said Grade 12 WDHS student Meghan Riggs, an organizer of the walkout, while alluding to this week’s cancellation of extracurricular activities and field trips by the teachers’ unions.

Students were motivated to take part because of their disappointment with the teachers over the loss of extracurricular activities and with the government over Bill 115, which not only downgrades teacher’s bargaining rights but also freezes teachers’ wages for the next two years. Some of the students feel the bill is unconstitutional and should be repealed, Riggs said.

Most of the students sat in the atrium in the school’s foyer during the protest, Riggs said, adding that she felt it was important for the WDHS to participate in the protest along with many of their counterparts across Hamilton, including Sir John A. Macdonald, Barton, Westdale, Saltfleet, Sherwood and Sir Allan MacNab.

WDHS principal Michelle Visca described the student action as “very low key.” There were “no placards, no signage and no speeches,” she said.

Students who took part in the protest and left the school grounds during the 45-minute interval that began at 10 a.m. were marked absent and will be required to bring a note from their parents explaining the reason for their absence, she explained. “Student safety is our primary concern.”

Classes continued to run on their regular schedule throughout Monday. While a walkout is “not something we encourage,” Visca said, “it’s the students’ voice and there’s nothing wrong with students expressing their political opinions.” However, she also noted there are other ways for students to voice their views.

Students taking part in the walkout are accountable for work, assignments and test preparations they might have missed during their absence, the principal said.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Tim Simmons lauded local students for their conduct during the walkouts. “I’m quite proud of the way they handled it,” he said, while also indicating the board’s support for the students’ rights to express their views. “Exercising democratic rights can be an educational exercise as well,” he noted.

The HWDSB pre-empted the teachers’ job action last week by announcing the cancellation of extracurricular activities and field trips “until further notice,” effective Dec. 10. The cancellation includes high school sports teams and activities such as clubs, school dances and concerts.

Monday was also the first day that public elementary teachers represented by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) were directed not to take part in various extracurricular activities at their respective schools. As well, the ETFO has indicated that one-day rotating strikes will take place at elementary schools across the province, also beginning this week. The union will advise affected school boards 72 hours before the strike date so that parents can make arrangements for the disruption.

A one-day strike protesting Bill 115 was staged Tuesday by the ETFO Niagara teachers and occasional teachers. The strikes moved to Ottawa-Carleton, Lakehead in Thunder Bay, and Hastings-Prince Edward on Wendesday and are set for York Region, Trillium Lakelands in the Muskoka area and Renfrew today (Dec. 13).

ETFO president Sam Hammond has said every school board in the province will experience a teachers’ one-day strike by next Thursday (Dec. 20).

Simmons said the local board has not received any word about when it may be hit by the one-day strike, but have been assured they will get three days’ notice so they can communicate any news to local students and parents. In the meantime, he suggested that parents visit the board’s website for up-to-date details.

He said the board’s door remains open for negotiations with the unions representing elementary and high school teachers and he’s hopeful that contracts can be negotiated locally. “But Bill 115 is a real impediment to reaching a deal,” he added.

Bill 115 sets out the framework for contract settlements that includes a two-year wage freeze, an end to retirement payouts of up to six months of unused six days and a cut in annual sick days from 20 to 10. It also stipulates that teachers reach a deal with the province by Dec. 31 of this year or have one imposed on them. In addition, it permits the banning of strike action by Ontario’s teachers for two years, effective Jan. 1, 2013.

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