Strikes have far-reaching impact
By Sue Tiffin
Phase six of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario job action was announced Feb. 24 offering a reprieve from strike action but noting teachers will do only their scheduled teaching and supervision assignments during their regular instruction time, and will not cover for absent colleagues if a supply teacher is not available. The next phase of strike protocol will begin March 9 if a deal has not yet been made between the ETFO and the provincial government.
The announcement of escalating job action for the country’s largest education union comes after Ontario’s entire public school system, including all seven schools in Haliburton County, closed down Friday, Feb. 21 when teachers and education workers representing the province’s four major education unions walked off the job together after weeks of rotating strikes due to stalled negotiations with the province.
Nearly 200,000 teachers and education workers were all on the picket lines on Friday, some joining together in mass rallies, after discussions between unions and the government broke down. The province-wide strike marks the first time since 1997 that members of all four major education unions have walked out on the same day.
Issues important to ETFO include protecting the kindergarten program, teacher compensation, smaller class sizes, and resources for students with special needs, while issues identified by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation as important in their negotiations include class sizes, mandatory e-learning, and teacher compensation.
“Our ETFO members have made tremendous sacrifices to be on the picket line fighting for our world class education system,” Karen Bratina, ETFO representative for TLDSB, told the Echo. “They are strong, they are encouraged and even more determined in holding this government accountable for their cuts to education. The resolve remains strong and they are very much appreciative of the support received from community businesses, community members and parents.”
Bratina said teachers have been encountering support from others “at the gas station, grocery stores, liquor stores, general store as well,” with employees at these businesses asking for buttons or offering their support, while parents and community members have been delivering homemade cookies and squares as well as hot drinks. Businesses and community buildings around Archie Stouffer Elementary School, including the library, have allowed those on the strike lines to use washrooms, parking lots and inside space in order to warm up.
“When speaking with people in the community they give their support to teachers and encouragement to fight against what the government is trying to do,” said Bratina. “Last Thursday an elderly couple stopped and gave a teacher money to buy coffee/doughnuts from Tim’s. The teacher didn’t want to take the money but they were adamant. Students and retired teachers come with goodies, hot beverages and support. Some have brought their own signs and walked with us, some have written letters to newspapers.”
Colin Matthew, president of OSSTF District 15, told the Echo he has visited picket lines on each of the strike days, and said: “Educators would rather be in class but they are resolved to fight the cuts Doug Ford has imposed through regulation going back to March 15, 2019 and want to negotiate a deal that protects public education.”
Like Bratina, he noted that people have brought food and warm drinks to the strike line, have expressed their support while driving by and those walking the line have been offered washroom access, warming spots and donations of food from local businesses.
“The support from individuals and businesses has been overwhelming,” he said. “If there’s a bright spot it’s that the public understands the importance of the issue and seems to be joining us in protecting public education.”
Parents working around disruptionFriday’s strike resulted in more than two million students in the province – including 1,556 students in Haliburton County and 15,743 in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board – being out of class. ETFO, representing approximately 90 elementary teachers in Haliburton, has held six strike days since January thus far, while approximately 50 teachers and professional staff representing HHSS, AETC and virtual learning teachers have participated in four rotating strike days since December.
Emily Thackeray, who works at Minden Animal Hospital and has two elementary school-aged children, said her employer has been “very understanding,” as Thackeray and her co-workers manage different schedules on strike days.
“We (mostly) all have children and some of us need to wait on child care opening, or understanding that we may need to be travelling out of our way to drop them off to family members, sometimes setting us back from being to work on time,” she said.
Thackeray works full-time and her husband Mike Fisher operates his own business. “Scheduling has been an issue between figuring out who can watch the kids while working – daycare, grandparents, dad ... while all trying to schedule around other appointments,” she said, noting it hasn’t been easy to manage. “There has been lots of picking up/dropping off kids mid-day during these strike days ... The stressful part is making sure everyone [in the family] knows what’s happening on any given strike day.”
Jane Isbister, whose son is in Grade 4 where he has two EAs and daily nursing in what she said is a “good class environment,” said that during strike days she has been lucky to have access to respite workers who are supply EAs, though it’s costly.
In January, the Ford government announced it will offer parents with children in junior kindergarten to Grade 7 or children with special needs up to Grade 12 or age 21, compensation between $25 and $60 per day on strike days in which schools are closed.
“It’s expensive as we pay a fair wage for a child with [his] needs, so the stipend from the government covers a fraction of what’s needed – $130 for a day, plus the flexibility to work from home to do the nursing tasks related to meds and g-tube feeding,” said Isbister.
She said the strike action means that her family has run out of special services at home funding, which helps families caring for a child with a developmental or physical disability, until April, and has been challenging to manage around both local and out-of-town doctor appointments as “another layer of logistics on the plate.”
“And I 100 per cent support the issues around special education inclusion resources,” she said. “The miracle of public education requires the people resources to make education accessible to all.”
Isbister said that without the right respite support, she and her co-parent would be taking vacation or a leave. Despite these challenges, she supports what the teachers are fighting for.
“Support in classes,” she reiterated. “I’d keep this up for a much longer time, and am trying to coordinate getting [her son] to the picket lines too.”
Local businesses who are open to students for elective and extracurricular activities and field trips have been affected as job action escalates.
“Despite significant effort put forth by teachers some public schools have not been allowed to move forward with trips to Wanakita this winter,” said Cam Green, program manager of YMCA Wanakita. “Many of those schools have sought out alternative dates later in the year in the hopes that [a] resolution will be reached by then.”
Chris Bishop at Sir Sam’s Ski & Ride said that the resort is affected by schools not having an elective in place for skiing this year. In the past the Eagle Lake-based resort would have approximately 20 schools from within a one- to two-hour driving radius visit midweek, groups for approximately 20 days at 100 students per day, which he said represented about six per cent of the resort’s total business.
For resorts closer to the Greater Toronto Area and major populations, the percentage would make up 50 to 70 per cent of their total business, he said. Sir Sam’s has offered a discounted rate to families to encourage them to visit still, and has extended that offer to strike days as well.
“We made the offer because we need to make up some lost revenue due to the fact that there are no school electives for skiing this year,” he said. “We felt that some families would pull their kids out of school for the day and come as a family to enjoy a day on the slopes at an economical price that would be similar to what they would pay if they came with the school. Same scenario for strike days. ... We will not make up all the revenue lost to the strike actions but anything helps.”
Bishop said without that business, the resort would have to look at reducing staff hours.
“The teacher/government issue is having a serious negative effect on the whole ski industry, many resorts are laying off staff and reducing their hours,” he said. “I have talked to some resorts that state their business is down 40- 70 per cent.”
Bratina said she was sorry to hear the job action had negatively affected some businesses. “The fault lies with this government, we can’t accept the cuts to education,” she said. “Teachers across this province have no choice but to fight for their students. I would ask these business owners to contact Laurie Scott or Doug Ford and demand that they invest in education and get back to the table to negotiate a fair deal for everyone.”
Other Haliburton County-based businesses and enterprises have also offered “strike day” activities or events.
Several families took advantage of an Outdoor Fun Day event offered on one strike day by Medeba, which plans to offer more if need be.
“We have the facilities and the staff available and know that it is hard for parents to find ways to keep their children busy, especially for working parents,” said Katie Stiver, office manager.
The Haliburton County Public Library offered a “pop-up mini maker” activity session in which kids and their families could make buttons or use 3D pens on Feb. 21 at the Minden library branch but otherwise the branch services librarian Erin Kernohan-Berning said “programs are scheduled and budgeted for already and we don’t have the capacity to run additional programs unfortunately.”
“That said, we have still noticed it has been busier at many of our branches on strike days,” said Kernohan-Berning. “The public library is one of the last spaces in society where people can go without the need for a transaction, where people are welcome to just be in the building whether reading, working, using the internet or socializing.”
In Haliburton, Sharp Electric, Outdoors Plus, the Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teacher local, Assante Financial Management Ltd. and the Co-Operators Insurance have sponsored public skates at AJ LaRue arena, while the outdoor rink at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre has reportedly been used more by families during strike days.
Further information regarding job action or potential agreements between education unions and the government will be published to the Haliburton Echo Facebook page or included in upcoming issues of the paper.