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Strikes 'not about the money': English Catholic teachers' union Sudbury prez

English Catholic teachers were out Tuesday, English public elementary teachers strike in Greater Sudbury Wednesday

The labour strife in the education sector really isn't about raises for teachers, as the province claims, says a local union official with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA).

Chantal Rancourt, president of the OECTA elementary unit in Sudbury, joined almost 500 fellow local English Catholic teachers as they braved the cold Tuesday in picketing along three busy roadways in Greater Sudbury.

School was cancelled at English Catholic schools across the province, including the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, as teachers held a one-day strike Jan. 21.

All four Ontario teachers' unions are now engaging in rotating strikes or work-to-rule, and the Progressive Conservative government said the sticking point is the unions' demands for a two-per-cent wage increase.

The government has passed legislation capping public sector wage increases at one per cent, something the teachers' unions are challenging in court and opposing at the bargaining table.

“It really is not about the money,” said Rancourt, adding that this is the first time OECTA has walked out provincewide since 1997.

“A lot of our teachers, after a few days of full withdrawal would be giving up what they would gain from that extra one per cent (raise).

“To be willing to give that up in a heartbeat to make sure the cuts don't happen 
makes it clear that the cuts are what are truly at stake here.”

The cuts she's talking about are class size increases proposed by the Progressive Conservatives, as well as mandatory e-learning for high school students.

Rancourt said the government has also refused to rule out changes to the full-day kindergarten model brought in by the previous Liberals, which sees a teacher paired with an early childhood educator.

“This is about the quality of our publicly funded education, and if we allow these cuts to go through, then we're doing a disservice to our students,” she said.

Asked what she thinks the outcome of strike action by OECTA and the three other Ontario teachers' unions will be, Rancourt said she's not sure.

She said she's hopes stalled contract starts will resume and Education Minister Stephen Lecce takes a more “reasonable” approach this time.

Rancourt said it's possible there could be future walkouts by OECTA members, but it depends on how bargaining progresses.

The previous Liberal government imposed a contract on Ontario teachers in 2013 when unions began ramping up job action.

Rancourt said “it's definitely not impossible” that this would happen again under the Progressive Conservatives.

“And certainly if that's the case, then we'll deal with it as we must, and deal with it in the courts if we have to,” she said.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas, who, along with fellow New Democrat and Sudbury MPP Jamie West, visited the OECTA picket lines Tuesday, said that's not something she's expecting right now.

She said the Ontario legislature is on break until mid-February, and MPPs would have to be called back if a contract were imposed on teachers.

“I'm sure they are looking at it, but I haven't heard any whisper that we're being called back,” Gélinas said, adding perhaps that's because so far job actions are limited to rotating strikes and work-to-rule.

She said the English Catholic teachers she visited Tuesday say they're striking over classroom cuts, and not wage increases.

If class size increases and mandatory e-learning were taken off the table, “then things will be back to normal, teachers will be back in the classroom, and peace will be back,” Gélinas said.

She said the teachers are getting a lot of support from parents and the general public, who are not in favour of cuts, adding she saw a lot of beeping and waving from passing motorists as she visited the picket lines.

Tomorrow, Jan. 22, a rotating one-day strike by members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) hits Greater Sudbury.

Rainbow District School Board has cancelled classes for elementary students in response to the job action.

ETFO Rainbow president Barb Blasutti said the union will be picketing in seven different sites in Manitoulin Island, Espanola and Greater Sudbury between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Here in Sudbury, picket sites include Chelmsford Valley District Composite School, in front of the Hanmer Valley Shopping Centre, Sudbury MPP Jamie West's office, the Rainbow District School Board office (on Wembley Drive) and at Paris and Walford streets in the South End.