Four major Ontario teachers’ unions taking legal action against provincial government

Photo by Joshua Hoehne.

The four largest teacher and education worker unions in the province is filing formal appeals with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), the unions announced on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) say they have “no choice” but to file formal appeals with the OLRB, as the Ministry of Labour failed to “adequately respond” to their requests for appropriate health and safety standards in publicly funded schools. These requests were made in a formal letter sent to the Hon. Monte McNaugton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, as well as to the Hon. Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. The letter, penned by the unions, which together represent more than 190,000 teachers and education workers, requested a formal immediate meeting with McNaughton and representatives from the Ministry of Education, asserting that the Ontario government’s “Guide to Re-Opening Ontario’s Schools” fails to meet the requirements set out in the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. Links to the full letter can be found on the ETFO website here.

According to the unions, their representatives met with Ontario’s Minister of Labour and Chief Prevention Officer on Monday, Aug. 24, and “raised a number of concerns regarding the Ministry of Education’s failure to put in place all reasonable precautions for a safe return to school.”

“Following the meeting, the unions issued a request to the Minister of Labour that orders be made requiring the Ministry of Education to set standards around physical distancing, cohorting, ventilation, and transportation,” the unions said in a press release on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. “It was also requested that the Ministry of Labour review these orders monthly, in case scientific developments dictate more stringent standards, and that school boards be given additional time if necessary to implement proper health and safety measures.”

The unions say that, as of Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 – the date given by the Ministry of Labour for its response – the Ministry had failed to comply with the unions requests.

The unions also say the actions they are seeking are in line with those that have been put in place in workplaces and other public spaces throughout the province. Those actions, and those that would help facilitate two metres of physical distancing, are also in line with advice given regularly to Ontarians by Premier Doug Ford as well as Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams, Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe, and many other health experts, the unions said.

“Schools and classrooms are unique workplaces, with upwards of 30 people sharing small spaces,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond. “Smaller class sizes would help make schools safer. Should teachers and education workers not be able to expect at least the same standards and precautionary measures as have been put in place in stores, offices, and other spaces across the province?”

“The anxiety Ontarians are feeling around reopening schools is directly related to the government’s lack of leadership and their haphazard, incomplete planning,” continued OECTA President Liz Stuart. “The Premier and the Minister of Education say they will do everything possible to make sure schools are safe. All we are asking is that they make an honest, exhaustive effort to follow through on this promise.”

The unions also assert that the Ford government’s claim bout its “reliance on layers of prevention” does not follow widely accepted standards and practices around workplace health and safety based on the “hierarchy of controls” from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The unions said that at the August 24 meeting, the Ministry of Labour officials “repeatedly referred to personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers and education workers as a key part of the government’s strategy.” However, according to the NIOSH, PPE is only one of many measures and the least effective control against a workplace hazard. The unions contend that according to the NOISH, other measures, such as adaptations to the physical space, including improved ventilation, or changes to policies and procedures, are more likely to reduce a worker’s exposure to the hazard.

Furthermore, the unions strongly object to claims made by Premier Ford and Minister Lecce that by raising concerns about the government’s school reopening plan, teachers and education workers are failing to do their part to help Ontarians navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The government is attempting to deflect blame for their inadequate school reopening plan by creating division among Ontarians. But union leaders have a responsibility to protect our fellow teachers and education workers, and we know we have the support of many parents, students, health experts and others,” said AEFO President Rémi Sabourin.

“The accusation that teachers and education workers are not willing to step up and get back to schools is preposterous and insulting,” agreed OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof. “No worker in the province of Ontario should be expected to sacrifice their health and safety, especially when there are such obvious measures the government could be taking to reduce the risk and prevent potential tragedies.”

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