Two of the province’s largest teachers’ unions are set to hold back-to-back one-day strikes if they cannot reach a tentative labour agreement with the Ford government in one week’s time.

The union representing Catholic English teachers in Ontario announced on Monday afternoon that they will hold a one-day strike across the province on Jan. 21 if they cannot reach a tentative labour agreement by then.

The announcement comes just days after the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) announced that it would launch rotating one-day strikes one day earlier, on Jan. 20.

“We have not taken this decision lightly. It should go without saying that teachers would rather be in the classrooms. We also appreciate the difficulties that strike action presents for our parents and guardians, however the reality is that teachers are the last line of defence when it comes to stopping this government’s reckless education agenda,” Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) President Liz Stuart told reporters on Monday afternoon. “We will not stand by and let this government continue on a path that will have such devastating long-term consequences for students and our schools.”

Stuart said that union leadership had hoped that two days of bargaining that were scheduled for last week would have resulted in enough progress to “take a breath” and halt the escalation in job action but she said that the government “did not come to the table willing to engage in dialogue.”

For that reason, Stuart said, a decision was made to go ahead with a work-to-rule campaign that began today while also announcing plans for the one-day withdrawal of services next week.

As part of that work-to-rule campaign OECTA members are refusing to administer EQAO tests and declining to prepare report cards or go to any provincially-sponsored activities.

“It is an insult to Ontarians’ intelligence for the government to pretend that job actions like this are common,” Stuart said. “Negotiations are always tough but teachers have only had to take this kind of action when our rights and working conditions and the learning conditions of our students have been under direct attack. We have always advocated for the rights and needs of our students but this is the first job action of this scale by members of our association in more than 20 years.”

Cuts to education a stumbling block in negotiations

Education Minister Stephen Lecce is asking for teachers to accept a one per cent wage increase, larger class sizes and mandatory e-learning courses at the high school level.

On Monday afternoon he released a statement accusing OECTA of needlessly escalating to a one-day province-wide strike “following five hours of a work-to-rule campaign.

The statement went on to say that while the government is “disappointed in the teacher unions continued focus on escalation that hurts our students,” it remains “focused on improving public education and keeping students in class.”

“We think the pathway forward is to work constructively with the government to get a deal and not to withdraw services on our kids and not to walk out on them and undermine their learning potential. That is not going to build favour with anyone,” he told reporters at Queen’s Park earlier in the day.

Lecce said that the government wants teachers to “negotiate in good faith” rather than escalating job actions.

Stuart, however, said that the government has so far refused to “give its negotiating team the mandate they need to reach a fair agreement” at the table, leaving her union few options.

“Our negotiating team has an overwhelming mandate from our membership to do everything we can to fight this government’s cuts,” she said, noting that members voted 97.1 per cent in favour of a strike mandate in November.

OECTA represents 45,000 teachers across the province while ETFO represents about 76,000 teachers and other education workers.