NIAGARA – Public elementary teachers in Niagara showed up for work Friday morning after a planned one-day walkout was deemed illegal by the Ontario Labour Board just hours before.
But with little time for parents to be notified the strike had been called off at the last minute, classes were not much more more than half full.
District School Board of Niagara spokesman Brett Sweeney said absenteeism was about 40 per cent for the day on average across the board, which operates schools from Fort Erie to Grimsby.
“I’m not aware of any teachers who did not show up for work, except for any illnesses that you would normally expect for this time of year,” Sweeney added.
The board, which had no real control over the circumstances stemming from the ongoing dispute between the provincial government and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, was left to bear the brunt of questions and concerns raised by frustrated parents.
“We’ve certainly heard from parents at both ends of the spectrum,” said Sweeney.
“We’ve heard from those who were inconvenienced by this situation and from those who were very understanding that the circumstances surrounding this situation were beyond the Board’s control.”
ETFO announced Wednesday its plans for Friday’s walkout, which the union was careful to refer to as a “political protest” rather than a strike.
The protest was a result of the provincial Liberal government’s decision on Jan. 3 to use the powers it gave itself under Bill 115 to impose new collective agreements on union locals which had not otherwise ratified.
The union is challenging the legality of Bill 115, which it says is a violation of Charter rights, in the courts.
The province countered by making an emergency application before the Ontario Labour Relations Board, seeking to have the planned walkout deemed illegal.
The Board heard arguments Thursday evening and into the early morning hours Friday.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, issued a statement early Friday saying the union would abide by the decision of the Ontario Labour Board, which deliberated late into the evening Thursday before rendering its verdict.
“We respect the OLRB’s decision and will comply fully with the ruling,” said Hammond.
“We did not believe this to be an illegal strike based on past political protests directed at the government. We respect the provisions of the Ontario Labour Relations Act – something we have requested the minister and the government to do for almost a year.”
Hammond continued: “We have said all along that this government cannot be allowed to override the fundamental rights of working Ontarians. In this instance, the OLRB has provided direction and we will abide by that. However, we still have a situation where the terms and conditions of our members’ employment have been dictated through a disgraceful misuse of government power. It cannot be business as usual in the education sector.”
Hammond said 92 per cent of ETFO members who cast a ballot in December voted in favour of a one-day political protest should the minister impose new contracts using Bill 115. She did so on Jan. 3.
“This whole situation could have been avoided if the minister of education had accepted our olive branch in December to wait for a new leader to try and find solutions,” added Hammond. “While the current premier refers to other agreements put into place, none of those sectors had their democratic rights trampled through the use of draconian legislation like Bill 115.”
“Once again, we are calling on whoever is elected premier to meet with us and have respectful discussions to restore positive relations in a manner that is fair and respectful.”
The opposition Progressive Conservatives were quick to comment on the latest development in the showdown between the teachers and the governing Liberals.
In a press release issued around 5:30 a.m. Friday, PC education critic Lisa MacLeod, MPP for Nepean-Carlton, criticised the both the union and the McGuinty government for the current unrest.
“ETFO’s tactics have inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of young students and their parents since the school year began,” wrote MacLeod.
“Today is no different. Even as ETFO complies with the OLRB’s decision, it is too late for students in many communities who will miss class because of the strike threat.”
McLeod continued: “School closures today could have been avoided had the Liberal government acted on previous strikes and threats by union leaders in December, just as the PC Caucus demanded.
“ETFO’s point has now been made at the expense of Ontario’s families and their children, and the Liberals have bent to their demands to repeal Bill 115. The appropriate place now to continue their fight with the Liberals is in the courts and at the ballot box, not in the classrooms of this province.”
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Friday that in light of the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling a planned walkout by public high school teachers this coming Wednesday has been cancelled.