Local elementary teachers are prepared to strike if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t reached with the province.
Members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Hastings-Prince Edward Teacher Local met at Banquet Centre in Belleville Wednesday evening and local president Dave Henderson said judging by the rousing applause, the majority of local members are willing to go on strike.
“We had a huge crowd last night, the biggest I’ve seen here since I’ve been involved with (the union) — there was no parking and they were standing four and five deep at the back of the room,” he said. “I don’t know the official numbers of the (strike) vote, but I’d estimate we had at least 450 members there and there appeared to be strong support for a strike if need be.”
Elementary and secondary teachers have been without a contract since Aug. 31.
Henderson said, locally, the ETFO represents about 660 elementary teachers and another 230 members of the Occasional Teachers Association.
The ETFO has been holding a series of strike votes with its 83,000 members across the province over September and wrapping up at the end of October.
Wednesday night, ETFO president Sam Hammond gave the attending members a presentation on the key issues in the contract negotiations.
Henderson said he could not speak about the governments issues, but said there are a couple of major components for ETFO.
“We are concerned about to the threat to the kindergarten program — we don’t know the details, but we do know the government has committed to the current model for only this year and beyond that, they won’t say,” he said. “They are also looking for substantial savings in the elementary panel and to take an example from the (secondary school teachers), they want to increase the class size by six and if that were to happen, that would mean a huge reduction in teaching positions in secondary schools – so we think the government has designs on the kindergarten program by saying they’re looking for multi-million dollar cuts from our side and where would that come from? It would come from removing the teacher from the kindergarten classroom. That’s what we can speculate.”
The Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (OSSTF) has also been without a contract since Aug. 31, and has announced its 66,000 members will hold a strike vote beginning next week and wrapping up on Nov. 15.
Henderson said classroom safety is another major component of the negotiations.
“Our members are seeing increased violence in the classroom and really, nothing has been done to address that,” he said. “We’ve had a campaign for the last two years to raise awareness and to advocate for supports to be put in place. Something has to be done about that or we are in danger of destroying public education.”
Henderson also said more supports are needed in schools for special-needs students.
“We have more and more special-needs students in regular classrooms and they don’t come with the supports that are needed,” he said. “The government has an inclusion model, which we agree with, but it is not funded, so those students are being thrown into the regular classroom without the supports they need to be successful.”
CUPE reached a settlement earlier this month, hours before its 55,000 members would have gone on strike and Henderson said it reinforces the notion ETFO can also reach a settlement.
“They had incredible support from there own members, they were willing to take a strong stand and I think they played it well strategically in terms of the timing,” he explained. “It was so obvious that their work is essential to the school system because as soon as they said they were going out, school boards were prepared to close.”
Talks between the ETFO and Ministry of Education have been taking place since June, but Henderson said they have asked for a conciliation officer to be assigned.
“We’ve asked for mediation from the Department of Labour and that needs to be set up now,” he explained. “It won’t take long before they can put someone in place to talk to both sides. Once a report is issued, then we are looking at 17 days before any job action can take place.”