A seemingly familiar occurrence is upon us, as thousands of education workers across Ontario are poised to be in a legal strike position in the coming days. Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents non-teacher education workers such as Educational Assistants and Early Childhood Educators, have voted strongly in favour of strike action.
Under Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive-Conservative government, Education Minister Stephen Lecce is arguing that the demands being made by the CUPE union are unreasonable, and that his government’s offer is fair. Tabled by the province early in the negotiation process was an offer of a 2% annual wage increase over the span of the new contract for any staff member making less than $40,000 annually, and a 1.25% annual increase for those already earning $40,000 annually or more. The union on the other hand is seeking annual increases of 11.7% for all of its workers. Also demanded by the union are changes to working conditions, such as the addition of daily paid prep time and five additional work days in the summer before the school year starts.
Education workers are represented by several different labour unions, which can cause confusion when contracts are up for renewal. Many people mistakenly believe that the current labour dispute involves teachers, who are paid more than double what other education workers receive, on average. The current dispute involves support staff and custodial staff. Even Minister Lecce has been quoted as saying that the current dispute will set the stage for negotiations with “every other teacher union”, a simple factual error that could help win support for the government’s position. A full time experienced teacher now typically has a salary in excess of $100,000 per year. Misrepresenting CUPE as a teacher union could therefore help turn the public against the union, since an 11.7% increase on a $100,000 salary would be whopping. Support staff who perform many of the same duties as teachers, and custodians who do the grunt work that keeps school buildings functioning, are arguing that they simply want fair compensation for all.
“The majority of education workers make on average $39,000 a year, and they’re working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and they’re asking this government for a real wage increase,” said Union President Laura Walton. “We also need to understand that these are also parents, and they do want this school year to be smooth. But they also want to be able to afford to put food on the table.”
Minister Lecce does not agree. “We believe what we have offered really exceeds what many people out there [have],” he said. “I think that this education union is on a path to strike before the government offered our first proposal to them. That is not fair on families.”
CUPE members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action on October 3, setting the wheels in motion for a potential strike. Specific notice periods are set out and must be adhered to before any strike action can commence. Notice had not yet been given as of the time of writing, but in high stakes labour disputes, the situation can change very quickly.