Ontario will sweeten offer to education workers, says Ford, as union calls for early repeal of Bill 28

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday he is 'past the stage of fighting' with education unions and hopes to reach a deal that is especially good for low-income workers. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday he is 'past the stage of fighting' with education unions and hopes to reach a deal that is especially good for low-income workers. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his government will present an "improved offer" when bargaining resumes with a union representing 55,000 education workers, who are back on the job after a walkout that closed schools across the province.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Ford declined to provide any specific details about the government's proposal, but said the offer would be especially good for lower-income workers.

"We want a deal that is fair for students, fair for parents, fair for taxpayers and fair for workers, particularly low-income workers," he said.

The workers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), ended their protest Monday just hours after Ford promised to repeal a bill that used the notwithstanding clause to impose a multi-year contract and banned the workers from striking.

Bill 28 was met with fierce resistance from CUPE and other labour unions. Ford said the law would be revoked when the legislature sits again early next week.

But in a news release Tuesday, CUPE suggested it wants to see the law repealed sooner.

"They had a 5 a.m. sitting last week to ram through this rights-trampling bill. We're calling on Ford and his buddies to show the same sense of urgency to do the right thing," the union said.

WATCH | Ford says CUPE contracts will have implications for entire public sector:

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.

'2-tiered bargaining'

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."

Ford said he wants to move forward with negotiations in good faith.

"I don't want to fight. I just want the kids in school. I'm past the stage of fighting, people don't want it," he said in a marked shift in tone from last week, when both he and Education Minister Stephen Lecce said they were left with no choice but pass legislation to prevent a strike.

However, he also cautioned that any agreement with the education workers will have an impact on 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, and he needs to watch Ontario's bottom line.

"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."

Ford said the government had previously offered a higher amount than what was in its original proposed contract, and he was "floored" that CUPE didn't take it.

The government had originally offered raises of two per cent a year for 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.

The union says it is technically still in a legal strike position, but will now instead focus on a renewed bargaining effort.

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."