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ETFO President Sam Hammond speaking with media

Working-To-Rule to Protect Our Union, Our Values and Our Profession: Hoping for the Best; Planning for the Worst

Lisa Mastrobuono

In September 2014, ETFO began central table discussions with the government and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) to negotiate renewed collective agreements for our teacher and occasional teacher members. Talks at the central support table for ETFO’s DECE, ESP and PSP members began in October 2014.

ETFO enters each round of bargaining with the goal of reaching fair collective agreements, not to undertake strike action. Even so, the phrase “hope for the best; plan for the worst” has always been part of ETFO’s collective bargaining planning. That means having a proactive strategy ready for every possible development at the bargaining table.

Early in the process, ETFO was concerned about the long list of items OPSBA and the government wanted to discuss at the central bargaining tables. Anticipating challenges might arise that would affect the progress of discussions, ETFO asked members for a strike mandate to support fair and meaningful negotiations. An all-member central vote was held online in November 2014, and ETFO members voted 95 percent in favour of strike action if necessary. The strike vote result sent a powerful message to OPSBA and the government that ETFO members expected their professionalism, as well as all of their existing collective agreement rights and entitlements, to be respected during this round of bargaining.

OPSBA’s Management Rights Agenda Revealed

In February 2015 as central bargaining for teachers and occasional teachers continued, ETFO found its concerns were warranted. OPSBA finally revealed its lengthy list of demands. They included increased supervision time; principal control over teacher preparation time; having teachers do more testing and less teaching; eliminating class size language in local collective agreements; taking DECEs, ESPs and PSPs out of classrooms and away from students to do non-classroom tasks; and giving principals the “flexibility” to pass over experienced, qualified teachers and occasional teachers for assignments.

In short, OPSBA wanted to turn back the clock on decades of negotiated improvements to education-sector working and learning conditions.

Discussions at the teacher and occasional teacher bargaining table in March failed to move OPSBA off any of its demands. On March 31, ETFO applied to the Ministry of Labour for conciliation, hoping the assistance of a conciliator could help parties at the bargaining table kick-start meaningful negotiations. That attempt was not successful, and so in April ETFO applied for a “no board” report, paving the way to legal strike action.

ETFO Members Said “NO” to EQAO

On May 11, 2015, ETFO’s teacher and occasional teacher members began “Phase 1” work-to-rule (WTR) strike action. The Phase 1 WTR was designed to have minimal impact on students and parents. Instead, it targeted duties connected to Ministry of Education initiatives and some school board activities. Teachers and occasional teachers stopped participating in grades 3 and 6 EQAO testing. They also would not prepare report card comments or participate in Ministry-related meetings and professional development activities.

ETFO members’ strike action put significant pressure on the Ministry of Education. Four days after the start of Phase 1 WTR, the Education Quality and Accountability Office announced EQAO testing would be postponed indefinitely in all public elementary schools for the 2014-2015 school year. This was an unprecedented victory – the first time EQAO tests had not occurred since they began to be administered in the late 1990s.

ETFO members had spoken with one voice and said “no” to EQAO; parents and students breathed a collective sigh of relief. Derailing EQAO transformed Ontario’s public elementary schools from data-driven testing factories into places centred on the needs of students. Teachers used their professional judgement – and all the time they would have taken in previous years “teaching to the test” – to provide engaging and in-depth instruction for their students. In other words, teachers were finally able to teach, and students to learn.

Member Activism

In response to OPSBA’s insistence in the media that teachers’ concerns revolved solely around monetary issues, ETFO members rose to the challenge. In addition to attending rallies across the province, members made their voices heard in the media, and on social media, with a collective message:  “We will not allow the dismantling of policies, programs and working conditions that have made Ontario’s public education system one of the best in the world.”

ETFO members created hashtags on Twitter, like #mypreptime, #classroomswithoutEQAO and #4mystudents, and used them to engage with the public and media about the kind of working conditions that are necessary to maintain excellence in our public education system. They participated in a Thunderclap “virtual march on Queen’s Park” to send a collective message to the government and OPSBA to engage in meaningful bargaining. Thousands joined ETFO’s member-only Collective Bargaining (CB) Facebook group seeking information and moral support. Many in the CB Facebook group worked collectively to develop online actions that would publicly highlight the implications of OPSBA’s demands on teaching and learning in Ontario schools.

Phase 2 Work-to-Rule

In advance of a September 1 bargaining date with OPSBA and the government, ETFO’s “Phase 2” WTR for teachers and occasional teachers was announced on August 20 by President Sam Hammond at the 2015 Annual Meeting. The “Phase 2” WTR continues to minimize the impact of strike action on students and parents, and targets administrative activities created by school boards that take teachers and occasional teachers away from their instructional responsibilities. Voluntary extra-curricular activities continue; so does the development of IEPs for those students who require additional supports in the classroom.

As we head into the start of the 2015-16 school year, it’s unclear where teacher and occasional teacher central bargaining is headed or when central bargaining for our DECE, ESP and PSP members will move into high gear. What remains evident is that, as always, ETFO’s 78,000 members – teachers, occasional teachers, DECEs, ESPs and PSPs – are prepared to stand together, strong and united, to achieve a successful bargaining outcome.

Lisa Mastrobuono is an executive staff member at ETFO.