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Teachers, government strike up negotiations

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Ontario teachers were slated to meet at the bargaining table with the Harris government today in hopes of avoiding a province-wide wildcat strike.

But while many are trying to remain optimistic, educational workers are bracing for the worst.

Locally, students have been coming home with letters from both the public and separate school boards warning parents a strike may be imminent.

“Unfortunately, this provincial conflict between teachers across the province may have a local impact,” read one letter signed by Paul Jackson, director of education with the Fort Frances-Rainy River R.C.S.S. Board.

“Although our schools cannot be officially closed, we will not be operating our transportation system and are asking parents/guardians to not send their children to school as the board cannot guarantee having staff available to supervise students,” it noted.

Andrew Hallikas, local president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said a strike might not be far off if negotiations don't prove fruitful.

He noted the provincial government has put a time allocation on the length of debate for Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act. It passed second reading last night, leaving only eight days of public hearings before its third reading in the Legislature.

“Right now, the ball is in the government's court," Hallikas said. "If the government doesn't back off, I'm afraid the worst-case scenario could happen.”

“As long as Bill 160 stays on the table in its present form, the vast majority of teachers are standing firm,” echoed Sharon Preston, local president of the Federation of Women Teachers' Association of Ontario.

While the teachers' federations and the government have met before, Preston said little in the form of negotiations has gone on. She hoped today's meeting will be more productive.

“I'm hoping good sense, reason and the people of Ontario take centre stage,” she said.

No one is exactly sure what will happen if an “illegal” strike is called. The decision to ignore back-to-work legislation has not been made—and probably won't be until necessary.

But the mood of teachers seems to imply they're ready to march on the picket line whether legally or not.

“Is something illegal if you're fighting something immoral and unethical?” Preston wondered.

“People really are angry at this," Hallikas said. ”We are so angry and so tired of seeing ourselves bashed by the government.

“If we're forced to go out, I suspect we're likely to stay out until the government gets ready to compromise,” he warned.

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