Contract talks to resume between education workers, government

Students at Trillium Lakeland district schools began Monday having been provided asynchronous work to get through a labour dispute that affected schools.

But then Premier Doug Ford offered to start the wheels going toward repealing Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, legislation designed to make the labour disruption illegal. Government used Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, called the Notwithstanding Clause.

The caveat was the legislation would be scrapped if the Canadian Union of Public Employees tore down their picket lines and returned to negotiations. They walked off the job Nov. 4 in protest of Bill 28.

The union represents the board’s secretaries, clerks, computer technicians, custodial and maintenance staff, and educational assistants.

As of press time, there was no word on if the Trillium Lakeland District School Board would scrap plans to go to online learning.

Many school boards throughout the province have returned their students to learning by way of online classroom platforms (Google Classroom, Brightspace, Seesaw). It harkens back to the early shut-down days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was indication the union demonstrations would be ended as early as Wednesday.

“For the safety of our students, TLDSB schools, buildings, and sites will be closed to students until further notice, but remain open to administrators, designated early childhood educators, teachers, and non-striking staff,” said Wes Hahn, the board’s director of education.

Schools will lend available technology to student who don’t have access to a computer, Hahn said.

“For students who do not have access to the internet, please reach out to your school directly to make a plan to obtain printed packages,” he said, and added that teachers will reach out to parents and guardians to ensure students are prepared to continue their curriculum.

The union’s wage proposal was an increase of $3.25 per hour each year in a three-year collective agreement. Government offered 2.5 per cent wage increases for workers who earn less than $43,000 a year and an increase of 1.5 per cent for people who earn more.

Hahn said the school board can’t safely operate schools without the union’s workers there for students.

“It is important to note that other school boards across the province may have different or fewer employee groups as part of CUPE and, therefore, would be able to keep their schools open,” he said.

Ford said during a press conference on Nov. 7 that the Keeping Students in Class Act could be rescinded if the union ended the labour disruption and returned to work while negotiations resumed.

“We’re willing to make a fair deal,” the premier said. “One that offers more help for lower income workers. We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents, and fair for taxpayers.

“We know we can get there.”

He said a deal with CUPE has impacts on broader public service salaries as well as the government’s ability to invest in services.

“These are complex discussions, especially given the economic climate we’re in,” Ford said. “Record high inflation, economic uncertainty, cost of living challenges that every family is facing.”

One union member who didn’t want her name used said it’s that economic climate and financial uncertainty that adds to the need for more reasonable wages.

“Try making the ends meet when you’re getting $40,000 a year,” she said.

Bill Campbell is president of CUPE Local 997, which has members at schools in Haliburton County. He said there’s much jubilation on the local picket lines and a lot of support in the community.

“There’s a lot of people honking their horns,” he said. “There’s a lot of support here. There’s grandparents holding CUPE signs. It’s really cool.”

Campbell said it’s early days in the labour disruption and there’s no telling when there’ll be an end in sight.

But there’s one thing of which he’s certain.

“I hope it doesn’t last very long because we recognize kids need to be in school,” he said. “But it’s not going to end until the Ford government goes back to the table and negotiates a deal with us.

“We’re going to stay out until we get a deal.”

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James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Minden Times