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Ontario high school teachers’ union suspends strikes indefinitely

March 18, 2020
By Shawn Jeffords/The Canadian Press

(Getty Images)

Ontario said it will continue contract negotiations with the province’s teachers unions using alternatives to in-person talks in light of COVID-19, a move that came as one union cancelled all further strikes because of the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that bargaining with one of the three remaining teachers’ unions without a contract will move ahead next week, but the discussions will adhere to social distancing requirements.

Alexandra Adamo said the government still has plans to bargain with the union representing teachers in the French-language system — Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens — for three days starting Monday.

“We will of course continue to listen to advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer and are looking at alternative ways to bargain other than in-person sessions,” Adamo said in a statement.

The decision comes as the union representing the province’s public high school teachers said Wednesday it is suspending all of its strike sanctions indefinitely.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation announced it will halt all rotating walk-outs and work-to-rule job action because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said the union is making the move out of an abundance of caution and to avoid any miscommunication during the pandemic.

The union’s work-to-rule campaign had asked teachers to cease some work activities, including responding to calls from work outside of regular school hours and taking part in staff meetings. Teachers will resume those duties immediately, Bischof said.

“We just wanted to make absolutely sure that there is no way any of our sanctions would interfere with any actions that are being taken to keep students and people working in education safe,” he said.

The decision comes after the Ontario government closed all public schools until April 5 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government also announced Tuesday it was cancelling all standardized testing for the remainder of the year.

All of the province’s four major teachers’ unions have been engaging in various rotating and provincewide strikes over the past several months of bargaining, while trading public jabs and rhetoric with the government.

But negotiations had resumed with all unions except the OSSTF after the government made recent concessions on two key issues.

The province offered to increase average high school class sizes from 22 last year to 23 next year, instead of the government’s original target of 28, and allow an opt-out for e-learning courses it previously said would be mandatory.

But the government had said it was not budging beyond an offer to increase wages and benefits by one per cent per year _ the unions have asked for two per cent on salary and around six per cent on benefits — and that it wanted concessions on a regulation that dictates seniority-based hiring.

On Friday, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said it had reached a tentative contract agreement with the government.

The union said details of the deal will remain confidential until it is ratified. Its members are set to vote April 7 and 8.

The government said Wednesday it does not currently have any dates scheduled to meet with OSSTF, but Bischof said talks could still be conducted safely using technology.

“Whatever we do we will follow the advice of health authorities,” he said.

“That probably doesn’t mean that it would be impossible to go forward. There are electronic means. There are ways that we could accomplish that.”

Meanwhile, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario negotiated with the government over the weekend but has no new dates set for further meetings.

Both that union and the government said they remain under a media blackout regarding the substance of those talks.

ETFO also said last week it would suspend rotating strike action, set to begin on March 23, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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