The strike of the knell and another set of picket lines is up. The Association des engseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens, the union representing all teachers and teaching-assistants in francophone Ontario schools, are going to walk out. This marks the last of Ontario’s four major teacher’s unions to announce a strike in protest over the Ford government’s proposed educational changes.
There are several sticking points between the two parties; salary, all-day kindergarten, mandatory online learning, support for special needs students and class sizes. The Ford government insists that the teachers are mostly concerned with salary increases, while the unions say that the latter issues are what they discuss at the table. Both sides have been in heated negotiations since the fall, with little headway being made, and several false alarms over tentative agreements.
As part of the Progressive Conservative’s various rounds of cuts, purportedly to balance the budget, most public-sector employees in Ontario have been capped at a 1% pay increase per year, below the predicted rate of inflation of about 2%. It was the government’s plan to extend this policy to teachers, but the unions remained uneasy about this idea. The education minister, Stephen Lecce, claims that this is the unions’ main demand. However, the unions say that their salary concerns are with respect to less well-remunerated teaching positions, like educational assistants and early childhood educators.
Funding for these support services is also being reduced. The services are targeted towards more vulnerable children, such as those with learning disabilities or precarious home situations. Many teachers say that they simply cannot meet the basic needs of these students while also instructing up to 28 of their classmates. The PC government has raised the caps on class sizes across the province, drawing the ire of teachers, who claim that increased class sizes decrease the amount of time and attention they can give to each individual student. These two issues have been taken up by all four unions, suggesting that if compromises are to be reached, it would likely be in one of these areas.
One of the thornier issues between the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation, which represents all teachers in public high schools, and the Ford government, is mandatory e-learning. The original proposal of four mandatory online courses was backpedaled to two in the fall after a particularly negative reception by students, teachers and the public. No other province in Canada has even entertained the notion, though several states in the U.S., where most public systems are notorious for their lack of funding and low quality, have implemented the policy. Many complain that online learning is not near the same level of quality as in-class instruction and that people from rural and isolated areas to have unreliable access to the internet.
Public and catholic educators are in the midst of rotating strikes, with the French teachers now joining them. Several perceived breakthroughs have come up nil, but the province is not considering back-to-work legislation quite yet. The Ford government has offered financial compensation to families with children affected by the strike, indicating that there is possibly more money they could bring to the bargaining table.