By James Matthews (Local Journalism Initiative reporter)
The union representing Ontario’s educational support workers believes possible labour action would ensure quality education, but government says any work stoppage will be a strike against families.
In what’s being dubbed by the Canadian Union of Public Employees to be an historic vote, as many as 43,821 frontline education workers, or 96.5 per cent of those who voted between Sept. 23 and Oct. 2, are in favour of a strike.
The union’s wage proposal is an increase of $3.25 per hour each year in a three-year collective agreement. The Ford government’s offer was just 33 cents to 53 cents an hour – the equivalent of the cost of less than one tank of gas per month.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the strike vote wasn’t a surprise. And, he said, any labour dispute will hurt kids and disrupt families.
“While these results are not surprising given that education unions have voted to hold strikes against families for nearly five decades, we are still extremely disappointed with the results,” he said.“CUPE is charging ahead with a strike while demanding nearly 50 per cent in increased compensation after two difficult years of pandemic disruptions for students.”
William Campbell is president of CUPE 997, which represents custodial and maintenance workers, office and clerical technical staff, and educational assistants at Trillium Lakelands District School Board.
He said the board in June laid off 77 people who provide frontline supports for students. To Lecce, he said those students are in families and the workers laid off are part of families.
“Those layoffs were the result of cuts to education funding,” Campbell said. “What we’re looking for is increasing services, increasing supports for students and, by extension, that would be helping families.”
According to the union, the message that’s being sent to the Doug Ford government is “education cuts are not acceptable.”
Laura Walton, an educational assistant and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU), said more frontline staff is urgently needed in schools for students to succeed. And, she said, now is time for a significant pay increase.“Education workers are standing up and saying in one unified voice: we demand better,” said Walton. “Workers need a long-overdue raise and students deserve more staff to guarantee services.”
The workers’ central bargaining committee is calling on the government to resume bargaining on Oct. 6. Walton said the union has forwarded proposals that would settle the current round of contract talks.
Lecce said the union will be leaving behind a reasonable offer that also protects the most generous benefits and pension plan in the country.
“We will continue to remain at the table to make sure kids stay in class without interruption right through to June,” the minister said.
Campbell said there are many kids in classes who are not getting the support they need to thrive.
“We’re looking for more funding for education so our members can better support students and, by extension, their families,” Campbell said. “Our wages simply have not kept pace.”
To illustrate his point, Campbell points to a head custodian who worked for the school board for 33 years.
“He was able to get a job (outside the school board) paying him $6 an hour more doing essentially the same work in the Haliburton area,” he said. “That’s incredible when you consider somebody that has 33 years experience can … get a job off the street for significantly more money.
“The pay rate that education workers have been receiving has just not kept pace with the communities in which we have people working.
”What was a decent paying job 20 years ago simply isn’t anymore. As a result, there’s a dearth of people willing to be educational support workers.“We’re short every day in probably almost all of our schools,” Campbell said. “We’re short educational assistants every day. We’re short custodians every day.”