Teachers across Quebec open pathway to strike amid negotiation delays, coronavirus worries
MONTREAL -- Citing concerns of workloads, pay grades and staff shortages, teachers across Quebec have voted to adopt a strike mandates in recent days.
On Thursday, teachers in the Lester B Pearson School Board voted 89 per cent in favour of the mandate, which allows the union to plan a strike sometime in the future, in this case for a maximum of five days.
The day before, teachers from the EMSB did the same, voting 80 per cent in favour of a potential strike.
Legally, teachers' unions are required to give seven days notice before going on strike.
Montreal Teachers' Association President Peter Sutherland told CTV News that it's still being determined when exactly a strike could happen, and after hitting what bottom line exactly.
“We are demanding that the government make significant investments in public education, improve teacher workloads and working conditions, and align teacher remuneration more closely to the Canadian average,” said Sutherland.
“Teachers in Quebec are currently the lowest paid of all teachers across Canada.”
Last year, Quebec teachers' starting salaries were an average of $44,993 annually, the lowest reported rate of any region, other than the Yukon, whose teachers' salaries are not recorded by Statistics Canada.
No other province or territory reported a salary under $50,000 for new teachers.
At most, teachers can make $80,917 salary, well below the national average of $91,930.
COORDINATED ACTION BY SEVERAL UNIONS
It's not just teachers in Montreal leaning towards a strike option.
Across Quebec, education unions have voted in favour of allowing strikes in a coordinated effort requested by the Centrale des Syndicats du Quebec, a major provincial trade union.
Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT) President Heidi Yetman says the strike votes are being ordered to pressure the government to resolve contract negotiations, which began in January.
Even though the maximum strike period is five days, the strikes wouldn't necessarily last for all five days if they do come to pass.
“It’s like having something in our back pocket,” Yetman said. “The next step is to strategize on how to use those days.”
Unions in Longueuil, the Eastern Townships, Laval, and several other areas have adopted their own strike mandates in recent weeks.
“In the English [education] sector, support is very strong,” said Yetman. Overall, the unions within QPAT have voted 89 per cent in favour of the strike mandates.
“We’ve been at the negotiating table for a year now and nothing is changing.”
Quebec's education ministry declined to comment to CTV's questions, citing ongoing negotiations.
The Treasury Board, also responsible for negotiations, hasn't yet responded to requests for comment, though a Treasury Board spokesperson has told media this week that the government is working on a new system to recognize "emeritus" teachers and a pilot project to exempt them from recess monitoring, both measures they hope will help with working conditions.
TEACHERS ‘PUSHED TO THE BRINK’
Contract negotiations are, of course, not happening in the typical year.
As teachers and students returned to their classrooms this month, many spoke out, saying the province is putting lives at risk bringing students back to school in person.
Earlier this month, teachers at Westmount High School wore black on the first day of class after the holidays to “mourn the inevitable deaths” they said would be caused by back-to-school.
Deborah Fairchild, a science author and a teacher at Westmount who participated in the all-black action, says teachers are being stretched thin.
“With all of this being thrown in our faces, I can understand why teachers would be pushed to the brink and vote to strike,” she said.
She says she doesn’t feel the province is doing enough to keep teachers safe from COVID-19. “They don’t seem to care," Fairchild said.
“Burnout levels are high,” said Sutherland, who says there is a significant shortage of teachers right now.
“The shortage is being exacerbated by both the demands of the pandemic and the refusal of the government to provide sustainable working conditions for teachers,” he said.
“The impact on both teachers and students is substantial.”
'KIDS ARE FALLING BEHIND’: PARENT
Not everyone is in favour of a strike.
“The pandemic has been rough on everybody,” said one parent of a child in the Lester B. Pearson School Board.
The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said now's not the time to increase anxiety around schooling.
“While the teachers want to move things along with the government, they’re putting pressure on parents, and more importantly, on kids, by going on strike,” he said.
“Kids are falling behind… I don’t think the parents or students need more pressure.”
But Yetman said that the unions are hoping parents will back them up.
“We need parents' support on this,” said Yetman. “When teachers go on strike, we’re going on strike for the students.”