Ontario moves up talks with education workers as union readies for strike

At least three school boards have said they will shut down schools if support staff fully withdraw services

By Adina Bresge in Toronto

with files from Barrie 360

The Ontario government and education workers are set to return to the bargaining table Sunday afternoon as pressure ratchets up for both sides to reach a deal that would prevent a provincewide strike by the end of the week.

Negotiations were scheduled to resume on Tuesday, but were moved up after the Canadian Union of Public Employees gave the required five days’ notice for a job action.

The move positions 55,000 workers — including educational assistants, custodians and early childhood educators — to go on a full strike as soon as Friday.

At least three Ontario school boards say they will shut down schools if support staff fully withdraw their services.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board have all said that they will not be able to operate safely if CUPE members walk off the job.

Mediated talks between the province and union broke down earlier this month, with both sides still far apart on wages.

The gap persisted heading into Sunday’s session as the countdown ticked toward a potential strike.

“No one wants to strike, least of all the lowest-paid education workers who can barely pay our bills,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, said in a statement Sunday. “Still, we need a significant wage increase and we deserve it.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he hoped CUPE would budge on demands that he has described as unreasonable, but said the government will do what it takes to keep students in school.

“We are at the table with a fair offer that includes a pay raise and maintains the most generous pension and benefit package, but most importantly — it keeps kids in class,” Lecce said in a news release Sunday. “If CUPE moves ahead with strike action and disruption, we will act to keep students in class so they can continue to catch up.”

CUPE is seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent. the government, for its part, has offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others.

Education workers have made several other proposals, including overtime at twice the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and ECEs, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

Other than the proposal on wages, the government’s offer seeks to keep all other areas the same as the previous deal except for a cut to sick leave pay.

The province wants to institute what it’s calling a five-day “waiting period” for short-term disability, during which a worker would receive 25 per cent of their normal pay and 90 per cent for the rest of the 120 days.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board sent a letter Sunday informing parents that its 195 schools, which serve more than 90,000 students, will close if CUPE moves forward with a full strike.

“We are working with our child-care providers on a contingency plan and will communicate more information shortly,” the letter said. “Parents with school-aged children are encouraged to make alternate arrangements for their families.

The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board together operate over 100 schools attended by roughly 50,000 students in Peterborough, Bowmanville and the surrounding area.

Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic said students would transition to remote learning at home, while Kawartha Pine Ridge said it would share details on plans if they receive notice from CUPE about pending strike action.

CUPE’s membership returned a 96.5 per cent strike mandate earlier this month.

The union represents custodians and maintenance staff at the Simcoe County District School Board and custodians at the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board.

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 Oct. 30, 2022.

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