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Video: Escalating teachers' strikes show 'state of bargaining,' union prez says

English public elementary teachers off the job twice this week, while English Catholic teachers were on strike Tuesday

With two different teachers' unions hitting the picket lines in Sudbury this week, escalating strike action shows “the state of bargaining with this government and the crisis we've reached in this province,” said union official Barb Blasutti.

All four Ontario teachers' unions are engaged in some kind of job action, whether that's work-to-rule or rotating strikes.

“Clearly, that tells you where the fault lies, and it's with the government,” said Blasutti, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Rainbow teacher local.

She spoke to Tuesday morning as teachers belonging to ETFO and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) demonstrated together in solidarity at the Four Corners area of the city's South End.

All told, about 1,500 teachers and other education workers belonging to the two unions were on the picket lines Feb. 4, meaning no school for hundreds of Sudbury students in two school boards.

ETFO members are now walking out twice a week across the province. 

Rotating strikes hit each English public board once, affecting the Rainbow District School Board on Tuesday. The union is also holding a provincewide strike Thursday, Feb. 6.

Three days of talks between ETFO and the government broke down late Friday.

English Catholic teachers held a provincewide, one-day strike Tuesday, Feb. 4. 

OECTA met with the government Monday for one day of bargaining for the first time since talks broke off last month, but no deal was reached, and no further dates are scheduled.

“I think it's actually the common theme with all unions at the moment, that there are some talks happening at most tables, but an agreement can't seem to be reached,” said OECTA Sudbury elementary president Chantal Rancourt.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) announced last week that they would resume their weekly rotating strikes, after not holding any during students' recent exam period.

The French teachers' union Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), which is due to negotiate with the government this week, is engaging in work-to-rule. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has repeatedly said the key sticking point is compensation, with the union demanding a roughly two-per-cent wage increase and the government offering one per cent.

But teachers' unions say they are opposed to class size increases and mandatory e-learning requirements imposed by the government.

The elementary teachers are also fighting to ensure the Conservatives won't scrap the full-day kindergarten program brought in by the previous Liberals that sees a teacher paired with an early childhood educator. 

Lecce has released a statement saying he's made a written guarantee the full-day kindergarten program will be preserved.

But Blasutti said unless this promise is made at the bargaining table, it has little meaning.

“As the Education Minister, he's not at the table, he doesn't come to the table, but he repeatedly tweets and puts out these inane messages,” she said.

“He has not made that commitment at the bargaining table, and that's where it counts. Because without a contract, his words are meaningless.”

Both local ETFO and OECTA officials say they have no information about if and when strike action will be ramped up as the weeks go by with no agreement being signed with the government.

Rancourt said her OECTA members are feeling frustrated with the situation. “They want to be in the classroom,” she said. “But they also know that in the long run the cuts that are being proposed will be harmful to all of our students, and teachers know they have to take a stand for that.”

-With files from Canadian Press

Heidi Ulrichsen

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