Province’s response to CUPE labour dispute is shameful

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“If you are arrested, your first call should be to your local president who will in turn contact your National Representative.” These words hit hard. These words were included in an email sent to all members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 5678, in anticipation of strike action beginning on November 4. I am one of those CUPE 5678 members, and I still struggle to process what Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce have done. This is shameful. 

I shouldn’t even have to discuss the things that the union is fighting for, or the merit of these things, in order to express why it is wrong to legislate against fair collective bargaining, or to force ordinary low paid workers to go to work against their will under threat of being issued a fine or being arrested. Nevertheless, I will. 

I am going to throw out some numbers, and I can only hope that by the time you are reading this, a better deal has been reached, and these numbers will no longer be relevant. But given the Ford-Lecce attitude, I have my doubts. By now, most people ought to know that it is not teachers who are members of CUPE, but rather school support staff. Contrary to popular belief, these are not well-paid workers. A starting custodian makes just $19.79 hourly. An Educational Assistant (EA) makes just $21.72 hourly, and a Registered Early Childhood Educator (RECE) can expect a starting pay of just $22.34 per hour. These wages increase yearly in very small increments until a CUPE employee’s fifth year, when they cap out at an average of about $2 above the starting wage. Keep in mind that many of these positions have working hours that are below what would be considered full time employment. 

Why does it matter? Why don’t CUPE workers simply get a different job if they don’t like the pay? Surely there are others who would appreciate these jobs? Wrong! So very wrong! What happens when too many of these CUPE workers call your bluff? A typical RECE position at a childcare centre will pay a starting wage of at least $23 hourly, often more. I know this because, well, I run one. We all know with the current economy, that we can work at McDonalds for $16.50 per hour. The gap between minimum wage workers and the professionals who care for and help educate your kids is closing very quickly. Area factories pay much more than what CUPE members make. The Lactalis plant in Winchester has paid much more generous wages for years. A factory in Cornwall has just increased its labourers’ wages to an average of $23 hourly. I worked at that same factory less than a decade ago for $12.55 per hour. The world is clearly changing, and school support staff are being left behind. 

This matters for the simple reason that workers are leaving school support staff positions in droves. Who are these mystical workers who are waiting to swoop in and take these positions if CUPE members don’t appreciate them? There are none. If CUPE workers keep leaving for better paying jobs, it won’t be a strike that keeps your kids out of school, it will be a permanent lack of staff that necessitates switching everything online for the foreseeable future. That is when the nay-sayers will have no one left to complain about. That is when they will see that you need to pay people what they are worth. 

Imagine holding onto your job out of dedication, out of a love for children who aren’t your own, and a commitment to making their learning experience as amazing as possible. Then imagine, that not only are you totally disrespected when asking for a fair wage, but you also get threatened with criminal punishment if you exercise your constitutionally protected right to strike. Maybe Minister Lecce, who didn’t even attend public school as a child and now makes $165,000 per year, should find a new job. After all, the government that was supposed to protect the average worker is now a long way off from doing its job. 

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