Education workers in Renfrew County stood up in solidarity Friday to send a message that cuts to the province’s education system must stop.
About 450 teachers and support staff including educational assistants, early childhood educators, occasional teachers and school support counsellors from the four major education unions in the province – Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association OECTA) and Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) gathered for a rally Feb. 21 near the office of MPP John Yakabuski. This is the first time since 1997 that there has been a province-wide walkout involving education workers.
The rally kicked off with a union song by Opeongo High School teachers John Pierce and Mike Neill, members of OSSTF. It was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song Union Maid, but Pierce wrote the lyrics and Neill played the banjo.
The first part was spoken by Pierce:
The government would have you believe that you are greedy.
They would have your neighbours believe that we are all mindless stooges following the dictates of union thugs.
They are telling the world that you are selfish, overpaid, underworked and that your union is to blame. But…we are our unions.
Their disinformation campaign, their refusal to engage in collective bargaining, their refusal to negotiation is all a scare tactic.
The chorus sent a strong message “But you can’t scare me. I’m sticking with the union.”
This solidarity was evident as the members of the four unions walked as one.
The union leaders who addressed the crowd assembled on Isabella Street called it a historic day with nearly 200,000 education workers in Ontario on the picket line together.
“As we look back on this fight and today in particular we will remember the stand we took against these reckless and irresponsible cuts to education,” said Christian Sell, president of OSSTF District 28. “We know we will look back and be on the right side of history.”
He said the message being sent to Yakabuski and the Conservative government is that the students are the future and to deny them the education they deserve and at the level that is expected is shameful. He noted trustees from in Renfrew County and across the province have expressed that mandatory e-learning, increased class sizes and decreases to the supports for the most vulnerable students are not acceptable.
“Our students here in Renfrew County, whether you are in a French or English system, public or Catholic, kids will suffer from these unprecedented cuts,” Sell said.
He then asked the question why is Yakabuski not standing up for the kids of Renfrew County? He said education workers are appealing to the MPP to take their message to the provincial cabinet. That message is that any increase to class size, at any level, is not in the best interest of the students and not in the best interest of the future of Ontario.
“We know that any increase to class size means fewer resources, fewer caring adults for our most vulnerable kids, the kids who need us the most,” he said. “These kids will fall through the cracks of the system and leave high school without a diploma to show for it.”
Sell also mentioned concerns surrounding the proposed mandatory e-learning as some students may not have access to the internet or because their learning style or the learning challenges will prevent them from obtaining the credit.
“E-Learning is not for everybody,” Sell stressed.
Jo Anne McGregor, chief negotiator for the ECE bargaining unit of OSSTF, said her members are standing up today because they care about families and children and the quality of education.
“We are standing here because we lay the foundation for their learning and we stand with our teaching partners as we deliver a quality program that could not exist without support staff,” she said. “We stand today because we are here to fight the government. John Yakabuski needs to listen to our words. Today Doug Ford needs to listen to our words – no more cuts, enough is enough, we stand today in solidarity.”
Jamieson Dyer, president Renfrew County Occasional Teachers’ Local of ETFO, and Tracey Pecarski, president of the OECTA Renfrew Unit, both agreed that teachers and support staff would rather be in their classrooms but they were happy to be part of this historic day.
“We are giving up so much to take a stand and to try to get this message across that tax dollars are well spent in education, in health care, in transportation, not cuts to corporate taxes,” said Dyer. “Billions of dollars are being lost. Revenue must come in for good expenses. We are a good expense. Let’s invest in us.”
Pecarski added the education workers must send the message to the government that they will not stand up for the cuts.
“Cuts to education do not work,” she said. “We need to keep our system the great system that it is and keep teachers in classrooms. We here in Renfrew County need you (Yakabuski) to be accountable. We need you to speak for us because we are your taxpayers as well. We need to hear your voice supporting us not against us.”