Ontario school strike back on the table as focus turns to service levels

With Ontario’s education workers and its provincial government reaching a compromise on wages, the education minister wants to focus on keeping kids in school. But the bargaining team for those workers says it’s time to talk about student services next.

Armed with a fresh strike notice that gives the Ford government a five-day heads-up, Laura Walton, the educational assistant leading the negotiation for education workers, says she speaks for the tens of thousands of people who work in Ontario schools and the parents of the two million children who attend them and want to see more public spending on public education.

“This fight started with a focus on services for students,” said Walton, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) Ontario school boards bargaining unit. “Parents swelled our lines to demand better for their children and we're not prepared to back down now.

“We will not abandon parents just because Doug Ford waves a loonie (a Canadian dollar coin) in our face,” she said, surrounded by other members of the bargaining committee and leaders from the wider CUPE union. “We are not that easily bought nor that easily distracted.”

Walton said in the long negotiating days since the government repealed its hastily assembled strike law on Monday, the province offered a $1-an-hour annual pay rise in its proposed new contract, roughly 3.6 per cent a year, which she acknowledged as a step in the right direction, but had not budged on other minimum service demands.

“This isn't just about union workers wanting more money in their pockets,” she said, anticipating a government criticism that their response was greedy. “This is about them wanting to be able to do their jobs.”

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he was disappointed the union had responded to the government's improved offer with another strike notice. The first notice earlier this month sparked the government’s now-reversed legislative response.

“It is a significant increase for lowest-paid workers, and it was hundreds of millions of additional incremental dollars,” Lecce said of the proposal. “And the union has decided today, notwithstanding all those supports and increases, they've decided to proceed on strike, and I think that is entirely unfair for so many children.”

Both sides have said they remain committed to the bargaining table this week to try to reach a deal that can be presented to CUPE’s 55,000 members, whose members earn some of the lowest wages in the school system, at an average of $39,000 a year.

“I urge the union to call off this needless strike. Work with the government,” Lecce said during question period in the legislature. “Let’s get a deal that keeps kids in the classroom.”

CUPE wants an early childhood educator in every kindergarten class, preparation time for educational assistants who support students with special needs and extra hours available for cleaning and maintenance, Walton said.

“We wanted every student to have every possible opportunity to grow and achieve. This government said no, over and over,” she added, noting that in this week’s budget update, Ontario included the extension of a gas tax cut that will cost $1.2 billion.

“I guess (Ford) cares about cars and highways that no one wants more than he does about kids’ education or our province’s health-care system,” Walton said.

Asked whether the government was drafting another version of back-to-work legislation to try to head off any potential school closures, Lecce said: “The government is going to stay at the table to get a deal. That is our obligation. That is our focus. We want to negotiate a settlement with the union.”

The earlier bill led to a tense standoff, with schools closed for two days earlier this month as CUPE members walked off the job in protest and were joined by a string of other labour unions.

Mark Hancock, CUPE’s national president, said the union’s 715,000 members across the country will support Walton, the bargaining committee and Ontario’s education workers “all the way to the finish line until they get a deal that works for everyone.”

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer