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Unions call time on 10-day strike

Proposals for cuts and centralising power led teachers to walk out.

Jennifer Lewington reports.


Schools in Canada's largest province reopened this week after unions representing half of Ontario's 126,000 striking teachers decided to end a 10-day walk-out.

The dispute ended when three of the five unions in the Ontario Teachers Federation broke ranks and decided to return - the others then followed suit reluctantly.

The public has been deeply divided over the walk-out - labelled an illegal strike by the provincial government - which kept 2.1 million elementary and high-school students out of class.

The teachers staged the "illegal" strike - the largest of its kind so far in North America - to protest at major education reforms. The legislation was introduced in September by Ontario's right-wing government to overhaul the province's Pounds 6-billion school system.

The Progressive Conservative government was elected two years ago after promising to reduce taxes and public spending. It aims to make deep cuts in education and tighten control over what is the most decentralised school system in Canada.

The Education Quality Improvement Act would give the province full control over education revenue by suspending the power of local school boards to collect property taxes. It would give the provincial cabinet control of teachers' working conditions, which were previously negotiated locally by teacher unions and school board authorities.

In September, before the introduction of the Bill, talks between four of the five unions and the government yielded compromises but no firm settlement.

In October, after premier Mike Harris replaced his unpopular education minister with Dave Johnson, hopes rose of averting a strike. But after only two days of talks, negotiations broke down when documents leaked to the media confirmed teacher claims that the government planned Pounds 290m cuts.

Four days later, the two sides agreed to bring in a former Ontario chief justice to set up a new round of talks, but this too failed. Schools across the province shut down on October 27 .

Teacher unions - privately worried about their members' response - have been elated by the reaction of the rank-and-file - and of the parents. Judging by opinion polls, the teachers inititally won the public relations battle because parents did not believe the government's assertion that deep cuts in spending will improve the quality of education.

The teachers were further buoyed up when the government failed to gain a court injunction to force them back to work. The judge ruled that the government had failed to prove the disruption had caused "irreparable harm" yet, and went out of his way to criticise the sweeping powers of the Bill.

After the court ruling, Mr Johnson and teacher leaders met to negotiate changes in the wording of the education legislation, but failed to find common ground.

During the first week of the strike, parents were broadly supportive, but by the second week a number threatened to ask the Ontario Labour Relations Board to declare the strike illegal.

The strike has ended with the government conceding little on its proposed legislation, but it lost public support over its contention that deep cuts to education will yield improvements to the system.

The teachers' union leaders are claiming victory on the public relations front, and have vowed to continue the fight against cuts.

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