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Teachers hit the picket lines

Elmira District Secondary School staff joined in a province-wide strike by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation on Wednesday, which saw public schools in the region close their doors. [Steve Kannon]

High school teachers and support staff at schools across the Waterloo Region District School Board were on the picket lines Wednesday, protesting the provincial government’s cuts to education funding.

Members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which includes support staff such as secretaries and custodians in all WRDSB schools, were out by the hundreds in front of Elmira District Secondary School and Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris’ Elmira office.

Education workers began a work-to-rule campaign last week, slowing down some administrative functions to send a message to the board and, ultimately, the province. That escalated to a walkout on Wednesday morning that closed the schools.

“All of our teachers are on the line today,” said EDSS teacher DJ Carroll, who was acting strike captain out in front of the high school on Wednesday morning. “We want everybody to realize that there are a lot of negative changes coming down from the ministry.”

He pointed to larger class sizes, mandatory e-learning and cuts to special-needs programs as areas of concern for the union.

“The mood today is really positive,” he said on the picket line, adding that knowing they’re doing the right thing made it easier to deal with the situation. “We have lots of support from people driving by, waves and honking. People have been bringing coffee, food and snacks – that goes a long way.”

Out in front of Harris’ office, EDSS teacher Nanci Henderson, who works with the special education component, said cuts give schools less flexibility when dealing with the needs of students, particularly with special ed. programs.

“I work with some of our most vulnerable students,” she said, noting the province isn’t taking those needs into account.

“No parent ever says they want less support for their children. They want more support, and we want to give it.”

The downtown location saw hundreds of retired teachers, support staff and occasional teachers lined up to take part in the protest, with Henderson noting some of the retirees were veterans of the labour dispute under the previous Conservative government.

“We’ve got retired teachers here who might have picketed during the Mike Harris (Sr.) era.”

One of those retirees was Joe King, carrying an OSSTF flag from those 1990s battles. He said being frugal is commendable, but not at the expense of a quality educational system.

“It’s peaceful and calm here, but the message is a stern one: no cuts to education,” said King.

The space out in front of the MPP’s Arthur Street constituency office has been the scene of a couple of protests prior to Wednesday’s strike. Last Friday, for instance, saw education workers gather en masse to send a message.

“We’re hoping to help the public understand what the Conservative government is doing to the system,” Rob Gascho, president of OSSTF District 24, said during the gathering November 29.

“This is a strike action. People are here on their own time to send a message … about not devastating the public education system.”

Gascho said the government is not bargaining in good faith, in fact it’s not really bargaining at all.

For its part, the government claims it’s the teachers who aren’t cooperating in the process.

“Our government’s firm position, and that of parents, is that strikes hurt kids; we want deals that keep students in class. For teacher unions to escalate to the point of compromising student learning is very troubling,” said Harris in an email. “I support a deal, not a strike. I will stand by our team that remains determined to land deals with our labour partners as soon as possible to keep our kids in the classroom.”

Escalating action is needed to send a message to the province, said Carroll.

Teachers started with a work-to-rule campaign last week to make the school board aware of their position, while trying to minimize the impact on students, he said, noting Wednesday’s action was drawing attention to the dangers of spending cuts.

“We want people to realize that harm that’s going to be caused now will be felt tenfold in the future.”

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