Ordered back to work, Ontario teachers say this labour dispute isn't over

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Teachers in Durham, Peel, and Sudbury's Rainbow school districts have been on strike for over three weeks. Yesterday, almost 70,000 high-school students went back to class, following a decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).

While classes have resumed in the three striking school districts, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) says it won't be business as usual in Ontario high schools.

On Tuesday, just as the provincial government started the process of instituting back-to-work legislation, the OLRB rendered its decision, ruling that the three local strikes were, in fact, illegal.

Classes started up again on Wednesday.

"Our members are not exactly happy to be back," said OSSTF Peel District President Mike Bettiol. "They have been ordered back because the strike has been deemed illegal, but obviously there has been no resolution of the issues we were out on strike for. All those things that were on the bargaining table are still on the bargaining table."

For all of Ontario's teachers, bargaining takes place through a two-tiered system; issues that affect all teachers and all schools are negotiated at a central table with the Ministry of Education, while local concerns are dealt with district by district.

In his ruling, OLRB Chair Bernard Fishbein, stated that elements of the three strikes contravened the School Boards' Collective Bargaining Act because they pertained to issues being negotiated at the central, as opposed to local, bargaining table.

Bettiol believes that the issues that the union was bringing forward are all local issues.

"Everything that we tabled was a local issue," said Bettiol. "Really none of the communications that we had from our bargaining unit to the public, or to our members really were about central table issues."

"The Board seemed to hinge their case on what was on picket signs, and the fact that some of our members had written things on picket signs that were central issues. But we didn't give those people those signs, they chose to express themselves. So really what they are saying is that if you are on a picket line, you don't have freedom of expression," said Bettiol.

Bettiol says that in Peel, local negotiating demands include a number of non-monetary issues such as health and safety provisions to protect teachers from the threat of violence in their classrooms; contract language that creates a uniform process for teacher performance appraisals; and job and salary protection in the case of school closures. 

The OLRB ruling does not permanently forbid strikes, instead calling for a two-week prohibition in which the union can take steps to insure that all local strike actions pertain only to local bargaining matters.

"This ruling does not change the fact that our members have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress at both the local and central bargaining tables," said OSSTF/FEESO President Paul Elliot in a press release. "If these school boards had just made an honest effort to engage in meaningful negotiations at their local bargaining tables, there would have been no strike and no need for a hearing."

Bettiol says that his district is currently talking to the board about trying to get negotiations going again.

"It's interesting that during the whole three weeks and two days we were off, the board bargained with us exactly one day," said Bettiol. "It's kind of interesting that you would have a bunch of workers on strike and choose not to get back to the bargaining table and get a deal and get them back to work. Instead you spend all your time filing Labour Board complaints and lobbying the government for back-to-work legislation. Is this really the approach to collective bargaining?"

The OSSTF says that teachers in the three districts will resume a full withdrawal of services on June 10, once the two-week moratorium imposed by the OLRB has ended.

"We will be acting in full compliance with the OLRB decision," said Elliott in another press release. "The ruling calls for a two-week moratorium so that we can, as the OLRB chair phrased it, 'cleanse' our local strike actions of any aspects that are 'in respect of central bargaining.'"

However, if the Wynne government passes back-to-work legislation, all strikes will be declared illegal until the end of the school year, which, according to the proposed legislation, would include the summer school semester.

"We have real concerns about the fact that they are willing to suspend our Charter of Rights and Freedoms right to be able to associate, to be able to bargain collectively, and to be able to strike to support that bargaining."

The Peel District School Board did not respond to a request for an interview before publication time.

UPDATE: The Ontario Government passed back-to-work legislation late in the day on May 28

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.

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