Ford says Ontario presenting CUPE with 'improved' offer for education workers

TORONTO — The Ontario government is presenting an "improved" offer to the union representing 55,000 education workers, Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday as bargaining resumed and staff returned to their jobs following a walkout that shut schools.

Doug Ford said he's glad both sides are back at negotiations again, a day after he promised to repeal legislation that imposed contracts on the workers and their union agreed to end its job action.

"While I can't get into details, we're back at the table with an improved offer, particularly for the lower-income workers," Ford said during a morning news conference at the legislature.

He struck a more conciliatory tone than when he was telling the Canadian Union of Public Employees last month, "don't force my hand."

"I'm past the stage of fighting," Ford said Tuesday. "Let's work together and move forward. That's all I'm asking."

Along with the new offer, Ford also cautioned that any agreement with the education workers will affect the four major teachers' contracts also in bargaining, and increases for CUPE could lead to "tens of billions of dollars" for increases to the teachers.

"That's money we need for schools, health care, transit, and infrastructure," Ford said. "It's money we need for vital services that hard working people of this province rely on."

The government had originally offered raises of two per cent a year for CUPE workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, and the four-year deal imposed by the soon-to-be-repealed law gave 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.

CUPE said that framing was not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn't get 2.5 per cent.

CUPE had originally been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent and said it later tabled a counter offer that cut its wage proposal in half.

Ford disclosed Tuesday that the government had previously offered a higher amount than what was in its original proposed contract, and he was surprised that CUPE didn't take it.

"I thought we had a deal," he said. "I was convinced we had a deal and all of a sudden they came back to my office and said, 'There's no deal,' I was floored."

The CUPE walkout by workers including education assistants, librarians and custodians began Friday, shutting hundreds of schools to in-person learning, and stretched into Monday.

Schools reopened Tuesday after CUPE said its workers would be back on the job following Ford's promise to rescind the legislation, which also banned strikes and used the notwithstanding clause to guard against constitutional challenges.

Parents expressed relief at morning drop-off Tuesday that schools had reopened.

Sona Popal, the mother of a Grade 1 student, said she had to drop her child at a family friend's house while schools were closed because she and her husband had to work.

"I am happy and I am glad that today is the day that they are coming back," she said outside Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto.

"Otherwise it was like a nightmare for us, (figuring out) how to take care of our kids at home if they don’t go to school."

- with files from Sharif Hassan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press