PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
Horns beeped in support from cars driving past. Parents brought coffee and donuts. Neighbours opened their homes to offer warmth and comfort. And so the day began for Niagara’s public elementary school teachers, who walked off the job Tuesday to protest what they say are undemocratic provincial legislation that interferes with the collective bargaining process.
“This is not about money,” said Christine Vaccaro, the prep teacher at Cherrywood Acres Elementary School in Niagara Falls. “This is about the government taking away our right to bargain. That’s what we are drawing attention to. That’s that we are out here fighting for. We think it’s important that the public see what is happening here.”
Eight teachers walked in a line back and forth along Pettit Avenue in front of the school while a light morning snow blew around. Vaccaro, a teacher in Niagara for 31 years, said an afternoon shift was scheduled to take over, wrapping up their day around 3 p.m.
“We think we have quite a bit of support in the community,” she added. “They know that it’s important that we have an opportunity to negotiate and not have a contract legislated to us. That’s what we’re out here fighting for. We want them to respect our collective bargaining rights. This is about the democratic right to sit down and bargain collectively in a fair and respectful manner.”
The Dalton McGuinty Liberals passed Bill 115 in September. It allows the province to set rules that local school boards must adhere to when negotiating with unions and allows the government to impose a collective agreements by Dec. 31.
Teachers set up pickets at each school across Niagara and also at the offices of St. Catharines MPP Jim Bradley and Niagara West-Glanbrook MPP Tim Hudak. It was all part of a rolling, province-wide job action by the elementary teachers.
Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor was spared protesters because he spoke out against the controversial bill and did not show up for the vote in the legislature.
Craitor did pay a visit to several of the picket lines in Niagara Falls Tuesday. About 200 marched for a while in front of Bradley’s home base in St. Catharines. Bradley, a former teacher, did not show up to speak with the picketers.
Many picketing teachers refused comment to the media, but those at ???, after conferring with their union leaders, were happy to speak. Vaccaro said other union members crossed their picket line to go to work in the school, and parents taking children had no difficulty or delays.
“We are not here to hurt or disrupt anyone,” she said.
Gary Anderson, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Niagara for occasional employees, echoed the comments from the pickets in Niagara Falls.
“We are here as part of a bigger picture that’s happening all across the province of Ontario,” said Anderson, who was in front of Bradley’s office. “Teachers are communicating to citizens and school boards and especially to the government that Bill 115 is an affront to any democracy everywhere. The fact that they have put forward anti-democratic legislation that stops us from following our own principles is something that every Canadian and especially working Ontarians should really stop and think about.”
The union is taking the government to court, claiming that Bill 115 violates their constitutional rights to free collective bargaining. McGuinty is urging the teachers to end their protests and let the legal system settle the dispute.
“I understand we have a difference of opinion with respect to Bill 115, but you are in fact consummate committed professionals (so) don’t deprive Ontario students of . . . what you brought to the table every day during the course of the past nine years,” McGuinty said Tuesday to the Toronto Star. “I think we have been very fair to teachers and I think Ontario teachers would recognize that,” he said.
Teachers would not respond directly to McGuinty’s suggestion that they return to work and not inconvenience parents and students.
“We know it’s difficult for parents … but teachers are the ones that see democracy in action,” Anderson said. “Teachers teach those values every day. Parents realize this is not something good . . . We’re saying something has gone horribly off the tracks with his legislation.”
After the strike was announced, the District School Board of Niagara closed elementary schools for Tuesday, citing safety concerns. About 23,000 students were impacted by the closure and strike. The board kept school-based daycares open for younger children.
“Without teachers in schools, it will not be possible to maintain a safe environment for students,” said Warren Hoshizaki, DSBN Director of Education.
The school board also called on the government to start productive talks with the teacher’s union.
“This is a very unfortunate situation,” said Kevin Maves, chairman of the DSBN board. “We believe that the best place for students is to be in class, continuing their education. We encourage the government to continue a dialogue with the teachers’ federation in order to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.”
- with files from Annie Silvester, Bullet News; and Niagara This Week