Ontario's five major teachers unions are preparing for an illegal walkout Monday that would shut down the province's schools in a showdown over Premier Mike Harris' plans to tighten provincial control over education and cut costs.
In a televised speech Monday, Harris condemned the unions' tactics.
"Choosing an illegal strike punishes only parents and their children," he said, adding that, for as long as the strike lasts, the government will pay each parent with school-age children about $30 a day for day-care expenses. This money, he later explained, would come from the $18 million a day school boards will save in teachers' salaries.
This union gambit is the latest in a series of labor strikes the Harris government has faced since it took power in 1995.
But Ellen Lennon, president of the Ontario Teachers Federation, the umbrella organization representing the teachers unions, said that, "unless the situation changes dramatically," the province's 126,000 teachers will launch "a provincewide political protest that will last as long as necessary."
Because the walkout is illegal -- the teachers all still are under contract -- participants will not receive strike pay. While the government could pass legislation in an attempt to force the teachers back to work, Education Minister Dave Johnson ruled out that approach.
"There's no magic wand to bring (the planned strike) to an end," he said.
If teachers are prepared to break the law, they could also defy a back-to-work order, he said.
Under Ontario law, citizens can complain to the Labor Relations Board if the unions go ahead with the illegal walkout.
The board then could order the unions back and, if they refuse, fine individual members up to $700 a day and unions up to $18,000 a day. School boards, however, would have to pursue the collection of the fines.
Harris' Progressive Conservative Party holds a majority in the Ontario Legislature, so his government can pass any legislation.
The controversy involves Bill 160, which has passed its "first reading" in the Legislature.
After public hearings and a second and third reading -- or vote -- in the Legislature, it will become law.
The main points of conflict surround transferring power for class sizes and teacher preparation time from the local school boards to the province.
While both sides claim they want to limit class sizes, each accuses the other of a willingness to increase class sizes.
The unions claim the government will boost class size to save money, while the province accuses the teachers of increasing student numbers to pay for teacher benefits.
The government wants to cut teacher preparation time to bring Ontario in line with the rest of the country. The union says this would cut 10,000 jobs; the government puts the number closer to 7,000.
Ontario now spends more than $10 billion a year on education for the province's 2.1 million youngsters.
The province has announced plans to cut about $500 million from the budget by consolidating school districts, reducing the number of teachers and replacing some with non-union, unlicensed instructors in such fields as physical education.
From 1985 to 1995, enrollment increased by 16 percent and inflation by 40 percent, but education property taxes have jumped by 120 percent, Harris said.
Despite this, Ontario students "now rank among the lowest in Canada," he said. "We spend enough money. We need better results."