The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) announced its members have given it a strong strike mandate as education labour unrest continues in the province.

The OSSTF said Nov. 18 that members voted more than 95 per cent in favour of the mandate. The union has not yet announced any job action but the vote enables a strike to occur, which would require five-days notice.

OSSTF District 15 Trillium Lakelands president Colin Matthew said central negotiations have been slow. The biggest issues remaining are keeping compensation in line with inflation, the proposed mandatory e-learning and the province’s class-size increases, which Matthew said are already being felt at a local level.

“We see some programs getting cancelled,” Matthew said. “In Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, we have music classes running with four different grades in the same class. This really diminishes student experience as well as putting an incredible amount of strain on teachers.”

The province plans to reduce funding for class sizes over the next four years, going from 22.5 to 25  students per average class in high schools. Although the province said it would keep funding largely intact this year, Trillium Lakelands District School Board already responded by not rehiring for 24 retiring teachers and more than 50 support staff layoffs.

That’s led to about 100 fewer programs across the board. If the province’s plans go ahead, Matthew estimated another 40 teaching positions and 200 course selections to be cut.

“Way bigger classes, way fewer options,” he said.

In a press release before the announcement, education minister Stephen Lecce called for third-party mediation in ongoing negotiations.

“While our government has been a reasonable force and student-focused at the bargaining table, the labour unions continue to take escalating steps toward strike action,” Lecce said.

OSSTF central president Harvey Bischof said the union is open to a mediator but also does not want the process dragged out or behind closed doors.

“We want to keep students in classrooms that are functional, classrooms that are safe, classrooms that are not bursting at the seams,” Bischof said.

The OSSTF is not the only teacher union in a dispute with the provincial government. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is also negotiating and announced it would begin a work-to-rule campaign Nov. 26.

The OSSTF is negotiating with the province and school boards over the next four days. Bischof said the two sides are still “very far apart,” but would not say when action could come.

Matthew said he hopes a good deal can be reached but his members are willing to be part of further action.

“I hope the minister sees where this is going and changes course.”

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