Abandoning their classrooms for the day, about 800 Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) members filled the streets of downtown Sudbury Dec. 17.
They gathered at Tom Davies Square for a rally, and then marched in a loop in front of the Rainbow District School Board office and then Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci's office.
The education workers chanted strike slogans such as “Hey hey, ho ho, Bill 115 has got to go,” and even sang Christmas Carols with altered words. In “Frosty the Snowman,” for example, the word “Frosty” was replaced with “Dalton McGuinty.”
The teachers were protesting against Bill 115, legislation passed by the province in September which imposes many contract terms on teachers, including a two-year wage freeze.
The bill also gives the province the power to pass a cabinet order-in-council to order teachers back to work.
The ETFO has been staging a series of one-day rotating strikes across the province since Dec. 10. So far, Broten hasn't moved to intervene in the strikes.
Classes were cancelled for all of the Rainbow District School Board's elementary school students Dec. 17 because of the walkout. Those participating in the job action were not paid for the day.
ETFO Rainbow local president Barb Blasutti said she thinks her members sent a message to the province.
“The minister of education (Laurel Broten) has been getting the message throughout the past couple of weeks with these rotating strikes,” she said.
“I hope the message she gets is we absolutely do want to negotiate, and we do want a fair and respectful collective agreement. She needs to get out of the way and allow that to happen.”
Jane Bennett, strike co-ordinator for ETFO Rainbow local, said Bill 115 takes away teachers' democratic right to freely negotiate a collective agreement.
“Bill 115 is not democracy in action,” she said. “It is not Canadian.”
ETFO provincial first vice-president Susan Swakhammer, who attended the rally, said the truth is that the public were ignoring the teachers' plight until the rotating strikes began.
The rotating strikes have been the lead story in every major news outlet since they began, she said.
“The word is getting out.”
Upon receiving notice of the walkout Dec. 14, the Rainbow board's director of education, Norm Blaseg, apologized to parents for having to close schools because of the job action.
Students are “caught in the middle” of the labour dispute, he said.
“They're caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “They don't vote. It's the ministry and the federations that are battling, and unfortunately the students are kind of caught in the crossfire.”
Blasutti said the teachers aren't taking these actions lightly.
“We understand the significance of strike action in our schools,” she said. “Unfortunately (Broten) has given us absolutely no choice. We have to take a stand.”
Beyond the rotating strikes, ETFO and its secondary school counterpart, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), began work to rule actions Dec. 10.
This has caused the cancellation of many extracurricular activities.
Northern Life spoke to several parents picking up their children after school at Northeastern Elementary School Dec. 14 about the walkout.
Terri Holm, whose seven-year-old daughter, Journey, attends the school, said she's supportive of the teachers.
“I feel for (the teachers),” she said. “I understand why they have to do it.”
Holm added she's not too impressed with the actions of the provincial government.
“I feel as though they're strong-arming them,” she said.
Stacy Hechsler, whose daughter, Emma, is in Grade 3 at Northeastern, said she's “on the fence” when it comes to whether or not she supports the teachers' job actions.
When asked if teachers should find a way to protest Bill 115 without affecting students, she said it would be great if they could try, but thinks the teachers' “hands are tied right now.”
Hechsler said it's been difficult to explain to her daughter why certain school activities have been cancelled because of the work to rule.
“They were supposed to got to see the Robert Munsch play at the theatre centre,” she said. “That was cancelled. They were very disappointed.”
Earlier this fall, ETFO and OSSTF, along with several other unions representing education workers, launched a charter challenge against Bill 115.
When asked why ETFO wouldn't just wait for the challenge to work its way through the courts instead of affecting students and parents, Blasutti said teachers have been forced to take these actions.
She said the union has tried lobbying, letter-writing, rallying and work to rule, but nothing is working.
“Yes, we have launched a charter challenge, but in the meantime, we just can't allow this government to get away with this serious abrogation of our rights.”
Blaseg also said he doesn't think waiting for the charter challenge to bear fruit would be an appropriate strategy for teachers.
“That might take years, right?” he said. “So I'm not sure that would serve their interests.”
At the same time, ETFO has been negotiating with the Rainbow board, although negotiations have now been suspended until the holiday season is over.
Blaseg said the board offered the union what they thought was a good deal, but the offer wasn't accepted.
Blasutti, however, said the offer wasn't acceptable as it contained many concessions. She said the two sides are having difficulty negotiating because of the parameters set out in Bill 115.
There's also a clause in Bill 115 which says if teacher locals haven't come to an agreement with boards by Dec. 31, contracts will be imposed on teachers.
Blasutti said she has no idea whether or not Broten will do so. Blaseg said he's equally in the dark about what will happen after this date.
“It all depends on what (Broten) says,” he said. She may say if you haven't worked out the local issues, which we thought we did, she will impose (an agreement).”