TORONTO — Leaders of Ontario’s big four teachers’ unions announced a province-wide, one-day strike after heckling the education minister at an upscale event.
Teachers with the Catholic, French and public school boards will walk off the job Friday, Feb. 21 at 5,000 schools across 72 boards.
“What you’re seeing here is a show of unity among all of us,” Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), told reporters at a downtown Toronto hotel Wednesday. “The different things that are on the table hardly matter in the face of a government that wants to slash fundamental supports for all of our students.”
Bischof was at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel with the presidents of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Association of Franco-Ontarian Teachers and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.
Hundreds of their members protested outside while the education minister, Stephen Lecce, participated in a “fireside chat” with Toronto Sun editor-in-chief Adrienne Batra.
Batra started by acknowledging the protest. Within minutes, ETFO president Sam Hammond shouted out to interrupt Lecce.
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“There are a few hundred people downstairs that are not very happy with your government,” Batra said. “You have a few people here who are union leadership and I’m sure the very kind staff would … clear some tables and you can start negotiating right here, right now.”
Lecce said his government’s aim “remains squarely on getting a deal” and said that unions have the option of entering mediation to secure an agreement.
“We have a mediator, Stephen,” Hammond shouted as other guests shushed him.
The event, which cost between $850 and $1,000 for a table, was billed as a talk about “Generational Leadership: Preparing Today’s Students For Tomorrow’s Jobs.”
But Batra and Lecce’s conversation focused almost exclusively on the labour dispute with teachers. They have been participating in rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns for weeks.
Lecce’s government blames the unions, who are pursuing salary raises for their members.
“I am not going to raise taxes on working people, on low-income families and seniors to offset an increase for folks who are objectively well-paid,” the minister said Wednesday. Hammond said Lecce’s comments were “absolutely appalling.”
According to the province, the average Ontario high school teacher makes $92,900 a year, while the OSSTF says the average salary is $86,682.
But the unions say the discord is the fault of government’s policies, which include increasing class sizes and forcing high school students to take some of their credits through online learning.
Liz Stuart, president of the Catholic teachers’ union, defended crashing the Toronto event: “It is the only way to actually get into the room with the minister. It’s the only time we actually get to hear from him.”
Outside, one teacher told HuffPost Canada that he experiences the difference that larger class sizes make every day.
Matthew Danton, who teaches Grade 7 in the Toronto District School Board, said he has 18 students in his class before lunch and 28 students after lunch.
“The morning is a much more manageable, productive time. And in the afternoon I feel like I’m swarmed.”