Health and safety on the picket lines
Ontario teachers holding province-wide strike Feb. 21
Whenever the 83,000 members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) hit the picket lines, health and safety is of paramount concern.
Over the past two months, ETFO members have participated in a series of one-day rotating strikes across Ontario. A one-day province-wide strike is scheduled for Feb. 21.
Strike action is always a last resort but the Ontario government’s cuts to education have mobilized members to stand up for their students.
It is a daunting task for the union’s 76 locals to identify picket locations, designate picket captains at each site and ensure that all members can remain safe — especially in the peak of winter.
Choosing picketing locations
The first and most important decisions come with the local leaders’ designation of picketing locations at elementary schools, political constituency offices or school board offices.
Highly visible sites are preferred, but is there sufficient sidewalk space or roadside setbacks to ensure that members are safe from passing vehicles? If not, then educators are assigned to another location.
Locals also make arrangements with nearby facilities for the use of their washrooms and possible usage as warming centres.
Notifying and meeting with police departments regarding picket locations prior to strike days is also important.
Police services have valuable experience to share when it comes to street rallies and safety.
A meeting prepares law enforcement members to take any calls from picket captains should an incident occur, as has happened when passersby have threatened educators.
Every picket captain is armed with emergency contact information for police and ambulance services as well as contact information for each picketing member.
Ensuring safe conditions
Many picket captains have brought shovels and salt to ensure walkways are safe; others have used pylons to demarcate the safest walking path.
If injured, striking members are not covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), and this winter’s picket lines have seen their share of slips, trips and falls.
Medical accommodations are always important, particularly when it comes to winter cold and standing for a three-hour picket shift.
Members with mobility issues take frequent breaks and bring chairs. Others who cannot picket are assigned to other duties.
They may act as shuttle drivers for the day or report to the local’s office to answer phones, create signs, write letters and help out with other administrative duties.
The key to maintaining safety lies with the site picket captain.
Following training, they assume responsibility for making the important safety decisions that affect all members on their picket line. They come to the strike day decked out with identifiable ETFO toques and often with safety vests, lists of members and emergency contact protocols.
It is only through a chain of responsibility — from ETFO’s provincial office to its local leaders and picket captains — that the union can safely take so many members out to the streets from their classrooms.
Along with parental support, the shared goal of protecting Ontario’s world-class education system from damaging cuts has kept member morale high among ETFO’s membership during this strike action.
Valerie Dugale is a member of the media relations team with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.