High school occasional teachers walk off job

In an exceptional move, local secondary school occasional teachers went on strike yesterday in the face of failed negotiations with the Rainy River District School Board.
It is a rare instance of occasional teachers going on strike in Ontario, and likely is the first case of secondary school occasional teachers going on strike since the Education Quality Improvement Act was passed in 1997.
The union’s three long-term occasional teachers, who generally cover maternity leaves and similar long-term absences, will continue to work during the strike.
But all other members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 5B Occasional Teachers’ Bargaining Unit have withdrawn their services.
Students at the board’s three high schools continued to attend classes yesterday despite the strike.
“We have permanent teachers who are able to cover classes above and beyond the three courses that they teach out of four,” noted Education Director Jack McMaster.
“So we have been reassigning coverages for permanent teachers to go in and cover the classes.
“If the need spills over, we use the study hall concept,” he added.
“If there are a number of classes that are required to be covered, we send the students to the study hall, where they are supervised and work on their work in that setting,” McMaster explained.
The study hall concept is a common one that’s used across Ontario, he noted.
Another common practice is for the board to call local unqualified people to cover classes.
“We have considered as many possibilities as we can to ensure the students keep learning through this disruption,” McMaster said.
There are times throughout the school year when occasional teachers—many of whom are retired teachers—are on vacation and so not available to cover.
“There are times when we exhaust our list, we go to what we call unqualified people,” said McMaster. “That’s not out of the ordinary to contact people to see if they’ll come in when qualified people aren’t available.
“We have contacted unqualified people in town but the union leadership has also contacted them and pleaded with them not to come in and cover,” he noted.
“These are people who would normally come in anyway. They’re not members of the OTBU.”
The two sides last met April 7 but were unable to reach a deal.
The teachers are asking to have their rate of pay tied to the salary grid for regular teachers, and to be paid the same daily rate as the lowest-paid teacher with the board.
But McMaster said the board is standing on the principle of retaining the right to negotiate an entire contract, rather than having certain portions signed off to other unions.
“It’s equally a matter of principle on our part,” said Andrew Hallikas, chief negotiator for the District 5B OTBU.
The membership is “very upset, they’re very angry, and very determined. How this board treats them has got to change,” he added.
The issue at stake is not money, Hallikas stressed.
“No, it isn’t the money. [The] elementary [teachers’ union] has settled and that money is fixed and we don’t want a penny more,” he insisted. “It’s about fairness and equity, and it’s about not seeing our salary eroded every single year.”
Over the last several years, regular teachers’ wages have increased by 21 percent while occasional teachers’ wages have gone up only five percent.
Since 2000, local secondary school occasional teachers’ wages have slipped from being the sixth best in the province to 26th out of 31.
McMaster previously has stated only about one-quarter of the boards in Ontario have tied occasional teachers’ salaries to the grid, taking into account all contracts with secondary, elementary, and Catholic teachers’ unions.
“If you’re going to bargain, you’ve got to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” Hallikas said.
There are 31 OTBUs in Ontario. “Those are the only people we compare our numbers to,” he noted. “The majority of the public, secondary occasional teachers have got their salary tied to the grid.”
The Lakehead and Superior-Greenstone boards in Northwestern Ontario are two examples, Hallikas said.
“I don’t see how you can say it’s comparing apples to oranges. They’re all teachers. They all supply teach,” countered McMaster. “I can’t see any comparison other than the whole picture.”
The local OTBU has about 40-50 members. Hallikas said occasional teachers are a transient group—often made up of retired teachers and young ones. For this reason, the numbers tend to fluctuate.
This also makes it difficult to establish a bargaining committee.
“It’s a David-and-Goliath situation,” Hallikas remarked. “This is the only year [since 1999] that we’ve actually had a bargaining team. The board took advantage of that situation.”
He also noted if the issue of having salaries tied to the grid is not resolved now, it certainly will come up again in two years when the next collective agreement is due to be negotiated.
“I’ve never seen a situation like this,” Hallikas said of his more than 20 years of negotiating.
“They want, I guess, some guarantees in life that we aren’t prepared to give,” McMaster said. “We’ve signed every union to a contract with the exception of this one.
“I think that speaks for itself.”
It’s unknown how long the teachers will remain on strike.
“We’ve been told they’ll be out this week, but we haven’t been told anything beyond that,” McMaster said.
Local secondary school occasional teachers have been working without a contract since August, 2004 and have been in a legal strike position since December.