Ontario parents worried about another disruption to learning as possible strike looms

MISSISSAUGA — Some parents in Ontario are concerned about further learning disruptions for students as a possible strike by education workers looms.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has said 55,000 of its workers -- including education assistants, early childhood educators and custodians -- will walk off en masse on Monday if a deal with the province isn't reached by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

It would be the second time that CUPE's education workers go on strike this month. Hundreds of schools were closed to in-person learning for two days when workers walked off the job in response to the government enacting a law that imposed contracts on them, banned them from striking, and used the notwithstanding clause to allow the override of certain charter rights.

Several school boards -- including Canada's largest, the Toronto District School Board, as well as the Peel District School Board -- have said learning will move online next week in the event of another walkout by CUPE, which filed a strike notice earlier this week after talks with the province broke down again.

Mississauga, Ont., parent Shabnam Shafi, whose two children attend Westacres Public School in the Peel board, is concerned about more learning disruptions if another strike goes ahead next week.

“It’s really not nice for the kids, them going on strike again,” said Shafi, whose children are in senior kindergarten and Grade 2, outside the school Friday.

“But (the union) should get what they’re asking, I think they have to negotiate and they have to reach a deal that’s good for everybody. The kids need to be in school.”

CUPE has said the two sides recently agreed on a 3.59 per cent wage increase, but the union is still fighting for higher staffing levels for educational assistants, librarians, custodians, secretaries and early childhood educators.

After two years of classroom disruptions because of the pandemic, and then the recent walkout, Charles Chung is worried about getting children back into a routine.

“Bottom line to me is we’re trying to get back to some sort of normalcy and it seems like the government won’t even talk,” said Chung, while dropping off his child, who is in Grade 2, at Westacres.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the government has put forward multiple improved offers and has not asked for any concessions.

Despite his concerns over learning, Chung said he supports CUPE “100 per cent” in its demands for higher staffing levels, which include having an early childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom.

“(ECEs) give teachers more time to do what they need to do,” he said.

John Warrick, whose four grandchildren attend Westacres, said he thinks both the union and the government have “legitimate points.”

“The government only has so much money that they can give,” said Warrick, who has two grandchildren in kindergarten and two in Grade 1, outside the school.

“Now it looks like the wages have been settled, but it’s nice to see that CUPE is worried about the quality of education and how the students are treated, and they’re willing to go on strike and lose money for that. So I respect that.”

Warrick said, however, that he doesn’t believe the situation should have got this far.

“I think both sides took way too long to start negotiating, and then everyone was under the gun,” he said.

“With the government putting the notwithstanding clause in, that was like putting a sledgehammer to it and just saying, ‘we don’t respect your right to negotiate.’”

CUPE's contract expired Aug. 31 and bargaining has been happening since mid-August.

The government tabled the legislation at the end of October after the union issued a five-day strike notice. Unions criticized the use of the notwithstanding clause in the bill as an attack on Charter rights, while Lecce said the government had no choice in order to keep students in classrooms.

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford offered to withdraw the legislation if CUPE members returned to work, which they did, and bargaining resumed.

In 2019, CUPE and the government reached a last-minute deal the day before workers had been set to go on a full strike.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press