What Parents Should Know About A Possible Ontario Teacher Strike

Here’s how to prepare and what to expect.


Empty desks in an empty classroom to illustrate a piece on a possible Ontario teachers strike

Update, November 14: Ontario’s elementary teachers will start a work-to-rule campaign on Nov. 26 that they say will not affect students, but is just the first phase in potentially escalating job action.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario says their action will target ministry and school board administrative tasks. Members are being told not to complete Term 1 report cards, not to participate in any professional learning from their school board or the ministry outside of school hours, and not to do any online training by the ministry.

Teachers are also being told not to take part in any school board activities on professional activity (PA) days and not to respond to any emails from administrators outside of school hours, except if it is about safety, support for students with special needs or for a supply teacher to accept a job.

ETFO said its job action will be incremental, and the work-to-rule will continue either until the union deems it necessary to ramp up the strike or a new contract is reached. “Our goal is to turn up the heat on Premier (Doug) Ford and his education minister, Stephen Lecce,” union president Sam Hammond said in a statement. “It’s critical that they finally come to contract talks prepared to address the real issues of concern: more supports for students with special needs, the protection of Ontario’s kindergarten program and critical issues like addressing violence in schools.” Hammond has said preserving full-day kindergarten is one of his members’ key issues.

After the previous education minister, who was ultimately demoted, opened the door to changes to the program, the government later committed to “full-day learning”—phrasing that doesn’t ease the union’s fears. But Lecce has said that contrary to how all of the province’s education unions are framing the talks, compensation is a major issue. They are looking for roughly two per cent wage increases, the minister has said, but the government just passed legislation limiting raises for all public sector workers to one per cent per year for three years. The unions have said they are preparing a court challenge, saying the law infringes their right to collectively bargain.

Three of the four major teachers’ unions, including the elementary teachers, are taking steps toward potential strikes as they negotiate with the government for new contracts, after the previous ones expired Aug. 31.

Elementary teachers will be in a legal strike position on Nov. 25, and high school teachers will be in a legal strike position next week, although they haven’t yet submitted the required five-day strike notice.

Catholic teachers have voted 97 per cent in favour of a strike but aren’t yet in a legal strike position, while talks between the government and French teachers continue.

Negotiations between the province and the education unions started on tense terms a few months ago amid government moves to increase class sizes, and the recent bill to cap public sector wage increases has further angered teachers.

While a strike by Ontario’s education workers (custodians, early childhood educators and clerical staff, who perform vital roles that at least two dozen school boards said they can’t safely operate without) was narrowly averted, with a deal reached late on Sunday, October 6, Ontario schools are still bracing for labour disruption.

Teachers in Ontario’s public elementary schools are moving toward a legal strike position. The high school teachers’ union has taken the unusual step of publicizing its contract demands, which include reversing the government’s moves to larger classes and forcing teens to take four of their high school courses online. Meanwhile, teachers from Ontario’s 1,500 Catholic schools recently lodged a formal complaint against Queen’s Park for raising class sizes by decree, rather than bargaining.

Here’s what parents need to know.

Why is all this strike and work-to-rule talk happening now?

Doug Ford’s government has made cuts to education in its bid to shrink the deficit and many people aren’t happy. Teenagers walked out of school over larger classes and fewer course options. School boards are reeling from cuts to government grants that have led them to give out pink slips to staff from teachers to custodians.

But it’s also important to understand that school labour negotiations come around every three years, and with them, talk of strikes and work-to-rule. As parents, we need to understand this is part of the normal cycle of a unionized workplace, and using the threat of job action is part of the process. Since education contracts typically come up for renewal at the end of August, we start hearing about teacher bargaining and possible strikes just as we’re getting our kids ready for back-to-school. Admittedly, the timing can be unnerving.

How likely is it that teachers will actually strike this time?

Impossible to say, but don’t panic yet. While work-to-rule campaigns seem to pop up every time education union contracts come up for renewal, full school strikes are rare. The last full province-wide teachers’ strike was in 1997. That two-week walkout was fuelled by outrage over by cuts to education by the Mike Harris government.

When will we know if a teacher strike is going to happen?

Unions must always give five days’ notice of any “job action,” from a full strike to a work-to-rule (and so must a school board too, if it decides to lock workers out).

Should I worry when I hear there’s a “strike vote?”

No. Strike votes are part of the process of collective bargaining, which simply give the bargaining team leverage at the table designed to put pressure on the employer, but they’re far from a guarantee of a strike. Likewise, don’t panic if you hear a union will be “in a legal strike position” on a certain day. Again, this is part of the long process of collective bargaining, and doesn’t mean there will ever be a strike.

If there is a strike, how long would it last?

Again, the last big province-wide strike lasted two weeks. That said, there’s no clear limit—although when school strikes drag on so long they threaten the students’ academic year, the province tends to order them back to work. But in recent years unions have been more selective in how they use strikes, sometimes opting for rotating one-day strikes in different cities. Unions also can target a handful of school boards with strikes, as the high school teachers’ union did in 2015 in Peel, Durham and Sudbury, cancelling classes for some 70,000 teens for almost a month. The Ontario Labour Relations Board eventually ruled the walkouts illegal and Queen’s Park ordered teachers back to work.

If my baby or toddler’s daycare is located in a school and there’s a strike, will it close?

It depends on several factors, but there’s a good chance it will stay open. Daycare centres are typically separate entities from the schools in which they are housed. Unless their workers refuse to cross a picket line, they will in many cases remain open. It’s a good idea to speak to your daycare’s supervisor as soon as possible to get their insights on how things might play out.

What exactly does “work to rule” mean?

Generally speaking, it refers to a labour reduction or a slowdown. It means workers do the bare minimum of work required by their employer.

What can I expect if teachers work-to-rule?

This has been a popular tactic in recent years, to devastating effect. In a work-to-rule, teachers typically boycott after-school activities, shutting down sports teams, field trips, drama clubs, music programs, student councils, Me-to-We clubs, charity events and sometimes cancelling graduation ceremonies. Teachers also have refused to add comments on report cards, or conduct the province’s standardized tests.

What’s the best way to keep up-to-date on labour developments?

There are three groups who come together to hammer out big-ticket items for Ontario schools like salary, benefits and class size. If you want to keep up with labour developments, it helps to know the names of these power-brokers, their acronyms and their Twitter handles.

1. The banker

The government of Ontario controls the funding of education. The buck stops, and starts, here. @ONeducation on Twitter.

2. The employers:

A whopping 1.3 million students go to Ontario public schools run by boards that belong to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA). As the umbrella group for the 31 English-language school boards and 10 regional authorities that educate 70 per cent of Ontario school children, OPSBA is the official employer sitting at the bargaining table, even if the government holds the purse strings. @OPSBA on Twitter.

If your child goes to a Catholic school, it’s the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association (OCSTA) that’s bargaining on behalf of 29 Catholic school boards that educate 575,000 students. It too is an employer, but with no control over funding. @CatholicEdu on Twitter.

3. The unions:

If your child goes to a public elementary school, their teacher belongs to the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the largest teacher union in Canada with some 83,000 members. It’s still at the bargaining table with OPSBA and the government, but will hold strike votes in the coming weeks to support its demands for more support for students with special needs, smaller class sizes and protection of full-day kindergarten. No talk of job action so far. @ETFOEducators on Twitter.

If your child goes to a public high school, their teachers belong to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), whose 60,000 members include teachers and some support staff including social workers and speech pathologists. It’s just starting talks with the government and OPSBA. No talk of job action here yet either. @osstf on Twitter.

Children in most Ontario public schools are supported by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 55,000 support workers in all Ontario schools—elementary and high school, public and Catholic, English and French. Their ranks include special education assistants and janitors, school secretaries and early childhood educators, maintenance workers, child and youth workers and itinerant music instructors, among dozens of others. @CUPEOntario on Twitter.

If your child goes to an English-language Catholic school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, their teacher belongs to the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA.) It recently filed a complaint with the Ontario Labor Relations Board against the province for arbitrarily raising class size on its own, rather than through bargaining. Nevertheless, OECTA is still at the table. @OECTAProv on Twitter.

The situation is confusing and stressful, but one thing to remember is that our children are watching us. How we react to this uncertainty and change will model for them how to do the same. They’ll hear enough panic in the playground, from teacher-bashing to Ford-bashing. We might serve our kids best by keeping calm, giving them the facts and reminding them all players in this labour drama mean well. This turbulence is just part of the cycle of life in Ontario schools.

With files from the Canadian Press