Government, union return to negotiations after brief labour disruption

Students at Upper Grand District schools began the week certain they’d be learning online again at some point.

The school board had informed parents of plans to have secondary students learning by way of online classrooms by the Tuesday with elementary school students doing the same by the Wednesday.

And it seemed to be a sure thing as both the provincial government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ facet that represents schools’ secretaries, clerks, computer technicians, custodial and maintenance staff, and educational assistants had their heels dug in to hold their respective positions.

“All along, we made a promise to do whatever it takes to keep kids in class,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “We will keep that promise.”

But then Premier Doug Ford offered during a press conference Monday to start the wheels going toward repealing Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act. That’s the legislation that was designed and passed the previous week to make the labour disruption illegal.

“For the sake of Ontario’s two million students, to keep classrooms open, they’ve left us with no choice but to pass the Keeping Students in Class Act,” Lecce had said the previous week.

“It’s disappointing that we got here. All along we had hoped to reach an agreement that’s right for students, right for parents, right for workers and right for taxpayers. But CUPE wouldn’t budge. They refused to take a strike off the table.”

One of the more irksome points of contention was that government used Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, called the Notwithstanding Clause, in the new legislation. CUPE members walked off the job Nov. 4 in protest of the use of Section 33.

The caveat to the premier’s offer to return to the negotiating table was that the legislation would be scrapped if CUPE tore down their picket lines as a sign of good faith.

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

Initially, 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.

Ford said during the Nov. 7 press conference 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.”

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James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Orangeville Citizen