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

TORONTO — Students were back in classrooms Tuesday as Ontario education workers returned to the bargaining table with the government to discuss an offer the premier described as "improved," though both sides remained far apart.

Negotiations with the Canadian Union of Public Employees resumed a day after Premier Doug Ford promised to repeal legislation that imposed contracts on the workers and their union agreed to end a walkout that shut hundreds of schools.

"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.

But Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, had a different take.

"I wouldn't say it's an improvement," she said during a break in negotiations. "I think there's still a huge concern. We do not do two-tiered bargaining."

The union had hoped Ford would recall the legislature — it is on a previously scheduled break this week — in order to quickly expedite the promised repeal of the education-worker bill. Walton said having the law still technically in place makes negotiations difficult.

"It's hard, right, because you're putting faith into a government that says one thing yesterday and here we are today," she said.

Ford struck a more conciliatory tone at the legislature Tuesday morning than when he was telling CUPE last month, "Don't force my hand."

"I'm past the stage of fighting," he 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 55,000 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workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, and the four-year deal imposed by the soon-to-be-repealed law gave 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.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