Hundreds of thousands of parents and students are facing greater job insecurity in Ontario schools after the Canadian Union of Public Employees rejected a deal that included a 15.2 percent pay rise over four years, saying support staff across the province will strike again if no agreement is reached.
While Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives were moving away from a two-tier pay system, Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s bargaining unit for school boards, said its 55,000 members will go on picket Monday unless the union secures additional full-time workers for schools.
Some bodies – including Toronto Catholic – have already announced that students will move to online learning if the jobs campaign continues.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that the Ford government has categorically refused to put any money on the table to provide students with the kind of learning environment they need,” Walton said Wednesday after providing the required five-day advance notice for had held a strike that will affect most bodies across the province.
While wages are no longer the sticking point, Walton said, “We will no longer allow the government to overlook your children… We are fighting for you… Our goal is to reach an agreement.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 55,000 education workers in Ontario, has announced a five-day strike, saying negotiations with the province have broken down again. Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the government is disappointed with the strike announcement, adds
Education Secretary Stephen Lecce expressed his “disappointment” that negotiations had reached an impasse with a strike notice issued just days after talks resumed.
But Lecce said the government will remain at the table hoping to reach an agreement in time to avert what Walton described as a “all-out strike” by caretakers, early childhood educators, educational assistants and library technicians, among others.
“It’s an unfair strike for so many children who are contemplating it, especially given that the government has significantly increased wages for the lowest-paid workers,” he told Legislature reporters.
“We have cooperated with the mediator in good faith. We believe there is a deal on the table. Of course we need the union to work with us to get a deal that keeps the kids in school,” Lecce added. “Since talks resumed, we have presented several enhanced offers that would have netted hundreds of millions of dollars for the entire sector, particularly for lower-income workers. CUPE rejected all of these offers.”
While CUPE agreed that it “was able to reach a middle ground with the Ford government and the Council of Trustees’ Associations on wages,” that wasn’t enough to keep the talks going, Walton said.
The Tories offered 3.6 percent annual pay increases over four years across the board. With compound interest, that’s the equivalent of 15.2 percent at the end of the contract.
That was a significant upgrade from the 2.5 percent annual increases for low earners and 1.5 percent annual increases for those earning more than $43,000 imposed on the union earlier this month in a controversial law that has since been repealed.
Parents and students may feel stunned by CUPE’s announcement, which comes a week after Ford agreed to the union’s demand to repeal its bill, which used the Constitution’s “whatever clause” to override members’ charter rights and impose a four-year contract on them, and led to a two-day strike.
“If this government was serious about their catch-up plan (post-COVID-19 pandemic), they would listen to the workers who are doing most to support learners and they would put an early childhood educator in every kindergarten class and provide more students through the direct support of an educational assistant,” said Walton.
But a senior official at another public sector union, which settled for less in its last contract, said CUPE may not have the same broad support it did after the Bill 28 debacle.
“We understand, but we’re not crazy,” said the official, speaking in private to discuss internal considerations.
Following Lecce’s remarks, Walton said, “We’ll keep talking,” noting, “There’s always going to be pressure tactics when you’re negotiating.”
“We’re not going to let the parents down just because Doug Ford slapped a lunatic in our face. We’re not that easy to buy, nor that easy to distract,” she said.
She said Ford “found money to extend a (gasoline) tax cut. That will cost $1.2 billion so people at the pump can save pennies. I think he takes care of cars and highways, which nobody wants more than he takes care of the children’s education or our province’s health system.
The government repealed Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, Monday afternoon with unanimous support from the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens.
Although Walton had said talks could not begin in earnest until that legislation was off the books, negotiations, with the support of mediator William Kaplan, continued for nearly a week.
Earlier, CUPE’s support staff walked out of work for two days despite the ban on strikes.
Ford’s invocation of the “disregard clause” sparked an outcry from both public and private unions, and leading politicians called him personally to express their displeasure.
Opposition parties said an agreement before the strike deadline should be within reach as wage issues were being worked out.
Liberal MP Mitzie Hunter, a former education secretary, said: “The good news is that both sides are moving much closer together. Both sides must continue the hard work needed to reach a fair deal for our education workers – ahead of Monday’s strike date.”
New Democracy education critic Chandra Pasma (Ottawa West-Nepean) said: “The government has all the cards in hand here. You have four days to come to the table with a deal that makes the investments our schools need.”
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