Toronto

Back-to-work legislation for Ontario's striking high school teachers

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals has announced the government will table back-to-work legislation this afternoon to end three ongoing strikes by high school teachers.

Strikes in 6th week have put more than 70,000 high school students out of class

High schools teachers were forced back to work after their strike was ruled illegal, but elementary teachers are ramping up job action. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Ontario high school students could be back in class this week as the Ontario government plans to table back-to-work legislation this afternoon to end three ongoing teachers' strikes.

"We respect our teachers and their right to strike, but this is about the government prioritizing, above all else, our students," Education Minister Liz Sandals said at Queen's Park on Monday.

The strikes have put more than 70,000 high school students in the Durham, Peel and Sudbury regions out of class.

Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne previously announced she would look at back-to-work legislation if the school year was in jeopardy. The province consulted its Education Relations Commission to determine whether the school year was in jeopardy, and the commission reported Monday morning that it was.

"We will table back-to-work legislation this afternoon, and I have asked the opposition parties for their co-operation to give unanimous consent to passing second and third reading this afternoon so that we can get the kids back in the classroom," Sandals said.

"It's over to you folks," she said, referencing the opposition parties.

The strike is currently in its sixth week.

"Our decision to introduce back-to-work has not been taken lightly," Sandals said. "The needs of the secondary students in the Durham Rainbow and Peel boards are paramount."

She said the government wants to speed the legislation through Monday afternoon to end the strikes as quickly as possible. She said students will be back to school on the day following the vote.

Wynne 'very disappointed' 

The Ontario Liberals have a majority government, but will need consent of the other two parties in the legislature to push the legislation to the voting stage.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, however, says she will not give consent to approve a debate over the legislation.

The Liberals can introduce it, but need a unanimous vote to approve putting it on the day's agenda.

Wynne told reporters on Monday she was "very disappointed" with the lack of NDP consent, which will prevent the legislation from being passed in one day. It is expected to pass within the week.

The last time the three parties considered back-to-work legislation was in 2009 when Toronto Transit Commission workers were on strike. All three parties agreed to debate the legislation and it passed the same day.

Wynne also downplayed concerns there could be province-wide strikes come fall.

"There are a lot of months between now and September," she said. 

Union opposes legislation

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, the union for teachers in the three boards, opposes the legislation.

"Nothing positive can ever come out of a legislated curtailment of a union's fundamental right to bargain freely and to withdraw services when necessary," said Paul Elliott, the president of the union.

"It's clear to us that the minister's decision to ask the Education Relations Commission for a recommendation was nothing more than political cover for a government that has no real commitment to the bargaining process."

The union charges that the Wynne government "would rather legislate than negotiate."

Teachers, province reached impasse

The back-to-work legislation could have students back in school by next week. (Megan Thomas/CBC )
Sandals said there is "no good reason" to oppose the legislation, since talks were stalled and the provincial union is negotiating separately with the province.

While the striking secondary teachers in three boards are set to be legislated back to work, their central union said this weekend that talks with the provincial government have reached an impasse.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation plans to apply to the provincial labour ministry for conciliation — the teachers must first use the government third-party assistance to try to reach a contract before they can take province-wide strike action.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board had also been set to rule on whether the three local strikes were illegal.

This is the first round of negotiations under a new bargaining system the Liberal government introduced last year, separating the process into local and central talks. The school boards argued that the three local strikes were really on central issues such as class sizes.

With files from The Canadian Press

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