By Jessica Lovell
A recent strike vote by local high school teachers might carry more weight than teachers and the board originally thought.
Upper Grand District School Board chair Bob Borden says the elected side of the board has not been in on recent consultations with the province regarding strikes. However, he is aware of rumours that started circulating last week that the province might not prevent teachers from striking before its Dec. 31 contract deadline.
“I was quite surprised to see the stance that the province is taking,” said Borden in an interview Monday.
Borden said that he, like many others in the province, was under the impression up until last week that the province’s Putting Students First Act would restrict strike action for two years. That might no longer be the case, but whatever the case may be, the board is continuing to work through the negotiation process, he said.“The labour laws are still in effect and we are negotiating with them,” said Borden.
As a normal part of that process, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation held a strike vote, should negotiations come to that point.
The union includes five different bargaining units – the Teacher Bargaining Unit; the Occasional Teacher Bargaining Unit; the Professional Student Services Personnel; Educational Student Support Personnel; and Office, Clerical, Technical, and Transportation Services. They voted strongly in favour of a strike mandate, with the highest vote in favour at 95 per cent and the district average being 85.5 per cent in favour, a news release said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people should expect a strike.
“We are not, at this time, in any way contemplating a strike, nor are any of us in a legal position to strike,” said Mary Gardner, president of the District 18, Upper Grand, branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
The vote is a normal part of the bargaining process under the Ontario Labour Relations Act and shouldn’t be interpreted as the suggestion of impending job action, said Gardner.
“None of us at this time have any plans for any form of job action,” including work to rule, Gardner said.
Part of the reason for the vote was to communicate the union’s displeasure with the province’s legislation, she said.
The act, also known as Bill 115, passed on Sept. 11. It gives school boards, teachers and support staff until Dec. 31 to agree to contracts in line with the government’s fiscal and policy priorities, including a two-year wage freeze.
“We have taken a strike vote at this time because we want to send a very strong message to the government,” Gardner said. “We are very unhappy with the legislation they have passed in Bill 115,” she said.
The key reason for the union’s unhappiness: “It removes the right of all our members to bargain freely and collectively,” Gardner said.
Nonetheless, both sides said they are continuing with the bargaining process.
“We do have an excellent relationship with our unions, and hopefully we can build on that,” said Borden. “As long as we keep talking, that’s good news.”
The union would not be in a position to strike until after the conciliation process has failed, and that process has not yet begun, he said.
“We’re at the very early stages of negotiations,” said Gardner, adding that the union has filed for conciliation.
“From our side, we’re going to be trying our darndest to come up with a resolution or settlement that the province will agree to,” said Borden.
The contracts between union members and the local public school board expired on Aug. 31.
Borden says the board can come up with a contract that would meet the province’s financial goals, but the province’s legislation has made the bargaining process more difficult.
“It’s slowly taking away the ability of the local school board to be able to manage its affairs,” he said.