Ontario parents brace for possible school disruption as clock ticks toward CUPE strike deadline

CUPE members and supporters rallied outside of Queen's Park in Toronto on the first day of an indefinite strike that closed schools in boards across the province.  (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)
CUPE members and supporters rallied outside of Queen's Park in Toronto on the first day of an indefinite strike that closed schools in boards across the province. (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)

Parents are preparing for some 55,000 education workers to walk off the job next week in case a deal between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario government can't be reached by this weekend's strike deadline.

A statement from CUPE's Ontario School Boards Council of Unions' central bargaining committee Saturday afternoon says it's still at the table and expects to stay there "well into the evening" to get the best deal for students, families, and front-line education workers.

"While we hope a strike won't be necessary, we're committed to giving parents as much notice as possible of any job action," reads the statement.

"We're buoyed by everyone who braved the cold to show solidarity at over a dozen rallies across the province today, standing together to urge the [Doug] Ford government to make much-needed investments in your schools."

Rallies were held across the province Saturday morning in support of CUPE workers. The rallies mark the third week of solidarity action after the Ford government passed a bill early November that sought to impose a contract and ban a strike by CUPE education workers.

While the bill was repealed earlier this week, both the union and the government have yet to reach a new collective agreement, with CUPE holding firm on its request for more staffing. The latest round of talks between the province and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is set to conclude by 5 p.m. Sunday.

Prasanjeet Choudhury/CBC
Prasanjeet Choudhury/CBC

"If there's money to extend credits for gas pumps, to build highways, then there's money to put into our schools to make sure students have the support they need," Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, told CBC Toronto on Saturday, while participating in a rally at Yonge-Dundas Sqaure.

"We know that it is more than possible to have an agreement this weekend."

Dozens turned out for the rally Saturday morning, where the crowd shouted: "What do we want? A Good deal. When do we want it? Now."

Miriam Zemell, an educational assistant and school secretary, said she's watched over her 24-year career as student services have declined.

"We're in these jobs because we really care, we really care about our students," she said. "I work with a lot of students who face a lot of adversity in their lives. I'm here because I really believe in what we're doing in public education but we need to receive adequate supports."

Parents brace for possible strike 

Parents across Ontario are waiting to find out whether or not they'll be sending their children to school Monday morning. 

If they don't reach a deal by the Sunday deadline, education workers will walk off the job the following day, forcing parents like Jessica Lyons to arrange backup child-care. 

"I have a plan for Monday. I have a plan for Tuesday. But getting beyond this, I mean, it just becomes more and more stressful to think about," she told CBC Toronto.

Jessica Lyons
Jessica Lyons

Last Wednesday, CUPE issued a five-day strike notice after talks with the province broke down once again. That notice came less than two weeks after the union organized a walk-out to protest against the now rescinded provincial legislation.

Since then, CUPE says both sides have agreed to a $1-per-hour raise each year or about 3.5 per cent annually, but the union says it is still fighting for higher staffing levels for educational assistants, librarians, custodians, secretaries and early childhood educators.

What the two sides want

"We need to see money put into services that students and families require, that they need," Laura Walton, president of CUPE told CBC's Metro Morning on Friday.

"Parents should not be handed money and told, 'Go find these services'" she said. "These services can be provided … in our public schools."

In a statement issued Saturday afternoon, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said the province already funded the hiring of nearly 7,000 more workers in the sector, which he says has one of the best pensions, benefits and paid sick leave programs in the country.

"For the sake of keeping kids in the classroom, we have repeatedly improved our offer to CUPE, including an additional $335 million pay hike for education workers alone," the statement reads.

"We need the union to do the same and put kids first by cancelling their second strike in two weeks. After years of difficulty, like all parents across this province, we know that students deserve to be in class on Monday."

The province agreed to provide free child care to elementary school-aged children of health-care and licensed child-care workers, if a strike does occur.

But the ongoing back-and-forth between CUPE and the province has parents, like Bronwen Alsop of the Ontario Families Coalition, feeling frustrated.

"I want school to be essential," she told Radio-Canada. "It is not something that you can … turn on and off and close just when it's politically best for your union or for your political gain. It's wrong."

Alexis Raymon/CBC
Alexis Raymon/CBC

In light of school closures during the pandemic and problems with remote learning, Alsop said she thinks students should remain in classrooms while the union and the province negotiate.

For most other students in the province, school boards are planning to transition to live virtual learning, in some cases as early as Monday.

But in many cases remote learning isn't a suitable substitution for in-person learning," Lyons said.

She wants to see more permanent solutions.

"Public education needs strengthening, it needs more funding," Lyons said.

"We're on the same side as education workers because that's what they see too."