Teachers' strikes: What are the political risks involved?

As all four major teachers' unions in Ontario plan a full-day strike across the province next week, thousands of families will be left scrambling to make childcare arrangements. But what are the political risks involved with continuing labour action?

Extended labour action can 'erode public confidence in public education,’ warns former union head

Teachers walk the picket line outside Glashan Public School in Ottawa on Jan. 20, 2020. Meanwhile, parents and families are bracing for another one-day provincewide strike on Friday, Feb. 21. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Last Thursday morning was out of the ordinary for Kate Ladell.

Normally, her two young daughters would be in school, in their Ottawa neighbourhood. But on this particular day, nine-year-old Tessa and seven-year-old Ivy were busy racing around their living room at breakneck speed.

"It's frustrating, you know," said Ladell. "It's stressful."

Ladell is one of thousands of parents across Ontario who have struggled to cope with rotating teachers' strikes, as negotiations between the unions and the provincial government stall over class sizes, hiring practices, funding for students with special needs and mandatory online learning.

"There's a local daycare that I can try and get into, but I'm not one of their regular clients," Ladell explained to CBC Radio's The House. "So I have to email or call to ask to get in. There's no guarantee — if everyone says, 'Yes, we need a spot,' then we are left scrambling."

'A big risk when there's this kind of disruption'

Ladell will likely have to find another backup plan next week, as all four major teachers' unions in Ontario are planning a full-day strike for Feb. 21.

The House spoke to two experts, each with experience on differing sides of this kind of dispute, to explore what's at stake as teachers and the province remain at odds.

Janet Ecker, former Ontario education minister under PC premier Mike Harris, pointed out that the stakes are already high when dealing with education.

"Next to health care, and I think some days even more than healthcare, education is probably your most political — if I can put it that way — issue that a provincial government deals with," Ecker told The House. "Everybody, whether they're a taxpayer or a parent, they have a child, a grandchild, a niece or nephew in the system, they have a relative who's a teacher... there's a great interest in this issue."

"I think public education is a great strength in society," said Kit Krieger, former president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation. "When there are job actions — which are legal, and a very important right — my concern is the erosion of public confidence in public education and people choosing private options." 

Ecker echoed Kreiger's concerns.

"The more times you go through this, the more you're causing parents to consider other options," she added. "It's a big risk when there's this kind of disruption, in terms of parents' faith in the system."