By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
Students were out of the classroom on Monday after high school teachers across the region went on strike.
The April 20 strike deadline was set earlier this month by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the union that represents teachers in the province’s public high schools. High schools under the Durham Catholic District School Board are not affected by the strike. However, the union representing the catholic board, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, are holding strike votes on April 23 and 24.
The OSSTF strike puts more than 21,000 students out of class.
When asked for comment by The Oshawa Express, a group of teachers in front of GL Roberts Collegiate and Vocational Institute on a rainy Monday morning read from a prepared list of issues they say needs to be corrected.
“We are here in defense of our work conditions, and also the learning conditions of our students,” said one of the protesters who asked not to be named. “There are a few issues. One of them is larger class sizes with fewer adults working in our schools. Of course, when we have more students per teacher, that’s less time for each individual student getting one-on-one time with the teachers.”
All other comments were directed to union leaders by the protesters.
Formal talks between the union and the province came to a stop on Friday, with the union citing the province’s continued push for cuts.
The next day, the union announced talks had also broken down with Durham District School Board (DDSB).
Dave Barrowclough, the president of OSSTF’s District 13, which covers Durham, says the union walked away from the table because it felt like the school board wasn’t going to budge and wouldn’t compromise.
“I believe what they were attempting to do with their passes was get us to walk away from the table. We thought it was disingenuous for us to sit there through Saturday night and Sunday when we knew we weren’t going to be able to reach a collective agreement,” he tells The Oshawa Express. “We wanted to give parents and students as much time as possible to prepare for what was going to happen Monday because they just weren’t bargaining with us.”
Mike Barrett, the chair of the Durham District School Board (DDSB), disputes Barrowclough’s assertion that the school board was disingenuous with its offers to the union during negotiations.
“We did not leave the table. We’re still at the table,” he says. “I would suggest that that’s not the way it’s occurred. If you want to have conversation, we’re ready to be able to resume conversations.”
“Certainly, we’re very open to being able to have negotiations. But unfortunately, the union’s not willing to come back to the table,” he adds. “We’re more than willing to meet because if you don’t meet, you’re not going to be able to come to a compromise to get our children back in the classroom.”
On the day the union walked away from the table with DDSB, the school board issued a news release with Barrett saying that “with the structure of provincial bargaining, there is nothing we can do as a board to resolve this situation.”
Barrowclough says he doesn’t buy that premise.
“They should’ve known that months ago that they weren’t going to be able to bargain,” he says. “Quite frankly, I don’t believe that because we put a full package of local issues on the table, all within their means, open to bargain. Currently, there wasn’t going to be a need for anything else, and (DDSB) didn’t come forward with anything.”
Barrowclough adds it doesn’t make sense that DDSB can’t bargain locally when a provincial deal hasn’t been reached as the two negotiations are dealing with different issues.
Speaking with The Oshawa Express, Barrett says it’s unfair to say that the school board won’t negotiate until a deal is in place with the province first.
“We recognize that local bargaining needs to take place, and we recognize that provincial bargaining needs to take place. We certainly have not suggested that. When you divide things between provincial and local, you can’t talk about the provincial lines at the local level,” he says, talking about signs on picket lines that cite class sizes and cutbacks, both of which are provincial responsibilities. “The signs are a bit of a misnomer because we can’t even talk about those items.”
Speaking with The Oshawa Express earlier this month while negotiations were still on going, Barrett said the school board has a plan in place in the event of a strike.
“We’re ensuring whatever labour action takes place doesn’t interfere or disadvantage those students that are applying for post-secondary education,” Barrett said. “Because it’s limited to seven boards and not all boards, what we have to do is be particularly sensitive to students…in those seven boards that may or may not be affected and that they’re not in a disadvantage compared to other students in the other boards.”
Barrett added that Grade 12 students would likely have their final marks determined by the work already done to date this semester.
With all 22 of the region’s public high schools closed, all regular classes, extracurricular activities, field trips and school events are cancelled.
Barrowclough says that, at this point, the strike will last as long as it needs to.
“Obviously, we are hopeful to get back to the bargaining table, get this thing resolved and get these people back into school because that’s where they want to be. They don’t want to be on the picket line. We’re ready and able to do that,” he says. “If it takes a couple of weeks or a couple of days, I don’t know. It’s one of those questions you can’t just ask one side because who knows.”
Barrett says that right now, the most important thing is for the union to return to discussions with the school board.
“I know it sounds very trite, but we need to be sitting across the table. We need to be able to meet with our teachers on the picket line and us inside the building,” he says. “Talking to ourselves, it doesn’t do anything to resolve the issue. We need to talk.”
Barrett adds that DDSB will be posting daily updates to its website and social media profiles.