Teacher unions hope large legislature protest in Ontario shows unity
By Allison Jones and Shawn Jeffords/The Canadian Press
Thousands of teachers marched along the streets surrounding the Ontario legislature Friday during a provincewide strike to put bargaining pressure on the government, sending what union leaders hoped was a message of strength and unity.
Friday’s joint walk-out by all four major teachers’ unions marks the first time since 1997 that educators from all the major unions are on strike on the same day, they said.
Teachers and education workers picketed at schools and other sites across the province, but the largest demonstration by far was in Toronto, where the road encircling the legislature was shut down to accommodate the massive protest. Teachers slowly walked nearly shoulder to shoulder around the roughly one to 1 1/2-kilometre loop surrounding the building, carrying signs decrying the Doug Ford government’s education agenda.
“It’s a demonstration that we’re not divided from our members or from the public in this province,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
“It’s time the government listened to front-line educators and to parents because they are speaking with largely one voice about what they want.”
The teachers, particularly those at the secondary level, are upset that the government announced last March it would increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 _ which would lead to thousands of fewer teachers in the system _ and require students to take four e-learning courses to graduate.
The government has partly backed off on both issues, offering to instead increase average high school class sizes to 25 and require two online learning courses, but the unions say it isn’t far enough.
Premier Doug Ford has suggested, without providing evidence, that front-line teachers don’t support the union leaders. Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, issued a challenge Friday to Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
“Come out of this building today and talk to the 30,000 people, our members who will be here,” he said. “If you think the four of us are orchestrating what’s happening today, come and talk to them and they’ll tell you exactly what’s happening.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the two million students out of class today should be in school instead.
“The focus of union leaders ought to be on negotiating a deal that keeps students in class,” Lecce said in a statement. “Parents are losing patience with the union-caused disruption in their lives, the inconsistency in their children’s education, and the financial impact of scrambling for alternate care.”
All of the teachers’ unions are asking for around two per cent in annual salary increases, while the government won’t budge beyond offering one per cent. It passed legislation last year capping wage hikes for all public sector workers at one per cent for three years, which the unions are challenging in court.
Elementary teachers say their key issues include guaranteeing the future of full-day kindergarten, securing more funding to hire special education teachers, and maintaining seniority hiring rules.
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