Ontario teachers divided on resuming extra-curricular duties

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Teachers rally outside the Ontario Liberal convention. (Photo: hdurnin / flickr)

The union representing education workers in Ontario elementary schools said yesterday that despite "respectful and positive" talks with the government under newly-minted Premier Kathleen Wynne, it has no intention just yet of telling its members to end their boycott of extra-curricular activities.

 Since September, elementary school teachers have been protesting the government's passage of Bill 115 by declining to lead student clubs, sports teams or other extra-curricular activities.

"Beyond the initial commitments made by the government team to listen, engage in positive dialogue and explore a more inclusive process for future bargaining rounds, it is going to take real actions to regain the confidence of members in light of the very flawed process during 2012 that resulted in the loss of members’ fundamental democratic rights," says a press release from the union.

The new Premier had been hopeful the elementary teachers union would follow the lead of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), which has recommended to its members that they resume leading extra-curricular activities for the nearly half-a-million students in Ontario's public English-language schools. They had ceased taking on extra-curricular roles in early December.

"The Provincial Executive recognizes that each member will make individual and personal decisions regarding extra-curricular and voluntary activities," the union leaders told members in an email last week. "That is your personal decision, as it has always been."

The OSSTF's recommendation to members to return to extra-curriculars was prompted by talks with the Ministry of Education last week in which the government said that it was open to renegotiating some of the working conditions connected to the contracts imposed in January.

According to the email from the OSSTF to members, the government has agreed:

-to put in place a "newly appointed central table team" that will work with OSSTF reps to "review and resolve" issues including "the development of a bargaining structure/process that will allow for local bargaining in this current round, and in future rounds";

-that any future changes to the salary grid structure would not be imposed;

 -to form a working group looking at the option of letting the OSSTF take over its own health benefits plan;

-and to "look for fiscally neutral alternatives to unpaid day(s)."

"The arrangements that have been reached do not add any money into the contracts," Premier Wynne told reporters. "They are all priorities and issues that do not have an impact on the fiscal framework."

Not all high school teachers are happy about the call to suspend their extra-curricular boycott -- "the lone remaining weapon in our fight against Bill 115 imposed working conditions," says one local strike leader. The move was supported in a vote last Friday by the majority of presidents of local bargaining units, but has drawn criticism from some rank-and-file members.

"Teachers want the government and our union leaders to know that rank-and-file teachers are unhappy with the idea of returning to extra-curriculars and business as usual without having a freely-negotiated and ratified collective agreement in place," wrote one teacher in a statement accompanying a petition she's posted on Change.org. Roughly 500 people to date have signed onto the statement that "we will not be resuming voluntary activities until the imposed contracts have been reopened for free collective bargaining and new agreements have been ratified by our membership."

The debate is heated, but it's not yet clear where the bulk of the membership stands. OSSTF leadership, drawing on reports from the presidents of its local bargaining units, has estimated that roughly 20 percent of members will likely refuse to resume leading extracurricular activities. Some teachers who've launched a Facebook page for those who want to continue the boycott claim it's closer to 80 percent.

The labour crisis in Ontario schools is no doubt being watched closely by politicians and public school workers in Alberta, where the government is pressuring teachers to accept a province-wide deal that the union says is unacceptable.

It's also being debated fiercely in the Ontario legislature, where Conservative leader Tim Hudak has accused the Liberals of "taking their marching orders from the teacher union bosses."

The Conservatives have also made much of a reported $10,000 donation made to Kathleen Wynne's Liberal Party leadership campaign by one OSSTF local (Toronto's District 12). Representatives of the union's provincial leadership argue that donation was made independently, and was not in keeping with the political strategy they'd set for the union after contracts were imposed under Bill 115.


Lori Theresa Waller is rabble.ca's labour reporter. 

Photo: hdurnin / flickr

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