Gulf widens in 'standoff' between province, teachers' unions

After weeks of rotating strikes and the promise of more on the horizon, Ontario’s largest teachers’ unions remain deadlocked in a labour impasse with the province that just keeps escalating.

Work-to-rule, rotating strikes planned for schools across the province in the coming weeks

Ontario public secondary school teachers have been staging a series of one-day strikes in recent months, and other teachers' unions will soon do the same. Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the strikes hurt kids, but his government hasn't introduced legislation to end the work stoppages. (Michael Wilson/CBC and Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

After weeks of rotating strikes and the promise of more on the horizon, Ontario's largest teachers' unions remain deadlocked in a labour impasse with the province that just keeps escalating.

Parents and kids across the province are now affected, with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) all now scheduling one-day strikes alongside the withdrawal of services.

"I'm seeing basically a standoff," said Charles Pascal, former deputy minister of education for the province and current professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

As both sides dig in their heels, Pascal accused Minister of Education Stephen Lecce of being "incredibly disrespectful" to teachers in the province.

"His language, his vitriolic comments, it's not helpful," he said. "Except for the current minister and his predecessor in this government, I've known every education minister for the last four decades, and I have never, ever witnessed more disrespect from a minister of education on a moment-by-moment basis."

As tensions surge, so too does the finger pointing from both sides, as the unions and the province accuse each other of not budging on substantive issues of compensation, class sizes, and the implementation of controversial e-learning programs.

"We've made significant moves to date … The ball is in the union's court," Lecce told reporters Monday. "It remains on their side. They've made no change at all."

Ontario's Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says the province has been 'reasonable,' and 'now requires OSSTF and the other teachers’ unions to work with us to get a deal.' (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

The Tory government has said changes to education were necessary to help chop at a $7.4-billion deficit.

"I think further escalations by teachers' unions are adversely affecting students in this province," Lecce said. "I would urge the unions to cease from escalations."

Quick analysis from Mike Crawley:

The simmering labour unrest in Ontario's school system is about to boil over. The Ford government says strikes hurt kids, but so far is showing no signs of bringing in back-to-work legislation to end the rotating one-day work stoppages. Nor do the unions seem prepared to stage full-blown walkouts, figuring that would almost certainly get them legislated back to work, with an unfavourable contract imposed. At Queen's Park, it's making for a high-stakes game of chicken.

Job actions escalate

ETFO president Sam Hammond announced Monday that Ontario's elementary teachers are ramping up their job action. Starting this week, elementary teachers won't be supervising extra-curricular activities outside regular school hours, participating in field trips, or participating in assemblies, except to supervise students.

Elementary teachers are also threatening to start rotating strikes next Monday "if the government refuses to address critical issues" by the end of the week.

Hammond told CBC News that there have been no discussions of late between the union and the province.

"There is no communication with this government, quite frankly," he said.

ETFO president Sam Hammond is flanked by elementary school teachers at a news conference last year. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Teachers in Ontario's English Catholic system also announced Monday that they would hold a one-day strike on Jan. 21 — following in the OSSTF's footsteps, which has been holding a series of rotating strikes in recent weeks, with another scheduled for Wednesday.

OECTA president Liz Stuart says the government's negotiating team has said it has no authority to reach an agreement that doesn't include "significant, permanent cuts."

Teachers say they are pushing back against the Ford government's plans to increase class sizes and introduce mandatory e-learning courses.

Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles says she is hearing that parents are most concerned about the long-term impact of government cuts to classrooms. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

But the Progressive Conservative government says the key issue at the bargaining table is compensation.

Province says its making concessions

Lecce said Monday that the province has made concessions both on class sizes and online learning.

In November, the province walked back its online learning requirement for high schoolers from four courses to two.

The Ontario government also announced last fall that it would partially walk back plans to increase high-school class sizes — scaling the funded average class sizes back to 25 from the 28 it had been proposing for months.

However, that number is still higher than the previous funded average of 22.5 students per class. OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said at the time that, "making things not as bad as they previously announced is not, in my mind, a concession."

OSSTF president Harvey Bischof speaks as teachers picket at MPP Stephen Crawford's constituency office late last year. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Pascal says he believes class sizes remain the biggest obstacle in the bargaining process.

"Unless this government deals with the biggest elephant in the room, which is class size … I don't see this resolving itself," he said.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles told CBC News that this is the first time in over 20 years that Ontario has seen province-wide education labour actions of this magnitude.

"All of [the unions] cite the government's refusal to back down from cuts," she said. "It's pretty clear to me that the government's cuts … to classrooms are the major concern for all Ontarians and for education workers.

"The government has a responsibility here to stop digging in their heels. I feel the government has dug themselves into a hole here."


Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at


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