Ontario's Liberal government scored a victory against public elementary and high school unions Friday when planned one-day walkouts by teachers were called off because a labour tribunal ruled the demonstrations would be illegal.

After the Ontario Labour Relations Board issued a cease and desist order against the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which was planning to hold a protest Friday, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation informed Premier Dalton McGuinty's government that it would no longer hold a walkout on Wednesday.

At a news conference, McGuinty said the ruling clears up any confusion about the legality of such walkouts.

“The threatened job action introduced a lot of uncertainty into the lives of young families today," McGuinty told reporters at Queen's Park.

It appears that the uncertainty kept a lot of students at home.

Donna Quan, the Toronto District School Board’s acting director of education, said about half of all elementary and junior high school students showed up for class in the morning.

The TDSB is classifying Friday as a “grant day,” which is similar to a snow day, meaning students who do not show up will not be marked as absent and they will not be penalized, Quan told CTV Toronto.

Friday morning was a confusing time for parents and students because many school boards assured them that elementary schools - and, in Toronto, junior high schools - would be closed Friday.

But after ETFO told its members to report to the classroom in light of the early-morning ruling, most of the school boards, including all of those in the GTA, reversed their earlier decision and decided to open their elementary schools for the day, giving parents just a few hours of notice.

The decision led to plenty of backlash from parents.

Elementary schools were open in several districts, including Toronto, Durham, Halton, Peel and York regions, Hamilton-Wentworth, Simcoe County, Waterloo, Grand Erie, Upper Grand and Niagara.

In Toronto, Simcoe County and York Region, all student transportation was cancelled.

In an interview with CP24, TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird defended the reversal on school closures.

“We realize that it’s a challenge for a lot of parents on a day like this, so we wanted to do the best we could to keep those schools open,” Bird said. “It is a regular school day for all of our students across the city.”

But students in at least two school boards are getting the day off. Elementary schools in Ottawa-Carleton and Greater Essex school districts are closed Friday. Both districts said their elementary schools would be closed regardless of the labour tribunal's decision.

School boards were forced to make a quick decision Friday morning because the Ontario Labour Relations Board delivered its ruling shortly before 4 a.m. after a 13-hour hearing that began Thursday afternoon.

After the ruling, ETFO president Sam Hammond said the union is complying with the ruling but its fight with the province over Bill 115 will continue.

“It’s not over in terms of Bill 115 and this minister (Education Minister Laurel Broten) imposing terms and conditions on my members, and we will continue to stand up for our democratic rights," Hammond told CP24 reporter Cam Woolley.

Teachers who ignore the ruling and do not show up for class could face a fine of $2,000 each.

Last month, about 92 per cent of ETFO members voted in favour of a one-day walkout.

Broten said angry parents can take comfort because the ruling means they will not go through another day like today while the existing contracts are in place.

“I think it’s an important day because it makes it clear that the collective agreements that are in place between now and 2014 will not have this circumstance present itself again,” Broten told CP24. “There is no circumstance in which a strike can be lawful. It will always be illegal.”

McGuinty, who is resigning after a leadership convention later this month, said he hopes the government and teachers can begin to rebuild their relationship.

However, the labour dispute is not finished because the teachers’ unions are challenging the constitutionality of Bill 115 in the courts.

OSSTF president Ken Coran said “genuine, open discussions” with Broten, McGuinty or the province’s next premier are needed to resolve the labour dispute.

“How do we solve this? You have to talk,” Coran said.

Legal arguments

Teachers across Ontario vowed to take job action after Broten enforced Bill 115 -- otherwise known as the Putting Students First Act -- which gives the government the power to impose a contract on teachers if their school boards fail to negotiate a new collective agreement by a set deadline.

When new agreements were not reached by Dec. 31, the Liberal government imposed a two-year contract on public elementary and high school teachers on Jan. 3. Under this contract, teachers will have their wages frozen for two years and will no longer be able to bank their sick days for retirement.

The teachers planned the one-day demonstrations as a way to protest the new labour contracts that were imposed on them.

McGuinty immediately called the planned protests “illegal” strikes and said the government would seek a cease and desist order to prevent teachers from walking off the job.

Hammond said the proposed job action was not a strike but in fact a demonstration of their right to engage in a political protest – a right protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Steve Barrett, one of the lawyers representing the ETFO at the Labour Relations Board hearing said, “If there is a little disruption, that is the cost of democracy.”

However, lawyers representing the province said the union is clearly breaching the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

"Whatever you want to call it, teachers can't withdraw their services during the currency of the collective agreement, regardless of their motive," Robert Charney, one of the lawyers for the province, said during the hearing.

After the ruling, Broten said she is glad the ruling cleared up any confusion for teachers.

"We have a ruling that confirms that the action counselled by ETFO was in fact illegal, as we have said it was all along," Broten said in a statement. "Now teachers understand from the Ontario Labour Relations Board that what they were being asked to do by their union was to break the law. Teachers are law-abiding and now that they know the facts, I know that they will report to work this morning.

"I know this has been a difficult time for parents, students and teachers," the statement continued to say. "I know there has been confusion and that there still is. But the OLRB's decision clears up some of that confusion and misinformation."

More protests planned

Though teachers are not be allowed to protest during school hours, the ETFO plans to make their cause heard at the upcoming Liberal leadership convention on Jan. 25 and 26.

“It will not be business as usual in our schools,” Hammond told reporters who waited overnight to hear the board’s ruling. “We will be en masse at the Liberal convention.”

As part of their protest, public elementary and high school teachers have withdrawn from extracurricular activities.

McGuinty said he hopes the unions will allow the teachers to resume extracurriculars.

Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod blamed Friday's situation on the province and the ETFO.

She deflected criticism directed at her party, which voted in favour of Bill 115 to help the Liberal minority government to pass the legislation.

MacLeod said the Tories supported the bill because the Liberals promised that there would be no disruptions in the classroom.

MacLeod said the ETFO was wrong to tell its members that it was OK to hold a walkout, and she accused the government of dragging its feet when it failed to use Bill 115 to put an end to rotating strikes that occurred in December.

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