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CUPE slashes wage demand, sources say, but school workers will still strike Friday if no deal reached


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CUPE slashes wage demand, sources say, but school workers will still strike Friday if no deal reached

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has slashed its wage demand as last-ditch talks continue with the provincial government, the Star has learned.

And CUPE, which represents school support staff, is still prepared to hit the picket lines Friday — and into next week — even though that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in fines a day.

The province and CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions were at a standoff Wednesday, after Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government wouldn’t sign off on a deal with CUPE unless it cancelled Friday’s strike.

But CUPE said it wouldn’t call off the job action until it has negotiated a deal with the province.

“Without anything changing, we are on strike until further notice, starting Friday, unless a deal is reached,” said Laura Walton, president of the school boards bargaining unit.

She said the union is in conversation with other unions to help cover the fines — which will be in place once controversial government legislation is passed Thursday — and “moving forward, how we are going to do this.”

Sources close to the talks told the Star that CUPE passed a new offer to the government Tuesday night, with a reduced wage increase, at roughly six per cent annually, down from about 11 per cent a year.

That leaves the sides closer but still far apart, as the government’s latest offer was 2.5 per cent annually for those earning less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent for those earning more than that, each year over a four-year term.

Lecce has said the deal with CUPE will set the stage for agreements with teacher unions and the government has to be mindful of what they will cost the provincial treasury.

When contacted by the Star, Walton would not discuss CUPE’s most recent proposal because of a confidentiality agreement with the mediator who is aiding talks.

She would only say, “We made substantial movement in our last offer in the interest of reaching an agreement that meets the needs of students, parents and workers.”

However, she added, “The government rejected our counter-offer.”

It is unclear if the government will respond with another offer, after Lecce said Sunday the government had already put forward its final one.

Lecce told reporters Wednesday that his government will push ahead with its back-to-work legislation that also forces a four-year contract on the CUPE workers, invoking the notwithstanding clause to override the Charter.

“We will not accept the strike this Friday, or any day, and I believe the overwhelming majority of parents insist that their kids are in school,” he said.

“They understand that there’s a debate between the parties. They don’t think their kids should be the casualty.”

Walton said the union has no intention to stop the job action, saying the government’s behaviour has shown it is not serious about getting a deal.

“We are not willing to let him do that,” said Walton. “We will defend and exercise our rights.”

The government’s bill, Keeping Students in Class Act, is expected to pass Thursday afternoon.

Lecce said the legislation is necessary because “the union has reaffirmed their commitment to a strike. And I believe that is entirely unfair to the children and gives the government no choice but to proceed with legislation in the absence of” removing the strike threat.

“At what point does the government say enough?” he said. “We are simply saying, with strong conviction, that the kids have paid a price and someone has to stand up for them.”

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He and Premier Doug Ford have repeatedly said that in light of the last two-and-a-half years of disruptions for students because of the pandemic, they would do everything in their power to keep kids in class.

Meanwhile, 16 New Democrat MPPs were ejected from the legislature’s daily question period for heckling the government over the antistrike bill, starting with Interim Leader Peter Tabuns, who refused an order from Speaker Ted Arnott to withdraw remarks in which he call Ford’s government “liars.”

He and the others, including finance critic Catherine Fife (Waterloo) and NDP leadership candidate Marit Stiles (Davenport), were escorted from the chamber by the sergeant-at-arms for using “unparliamentary language” and are barred from proceedings in the legislature until Thursday.

“We want them to throw out this bill,” Tabuns told reporters in the lobby. “He has to treat people fairly,” Tabuns added, speaking of Ford. “He’s not doing it.”

The ejections were planned in a bid to draw more attention to the legislation on a day when dozens of members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation were watching question period in the public galleries.

One woman, who described herself as a teacher of 30 years, shouted, “You’re destroying public education” at the government benches before she was escorted out by security.

Ford defended the legislation.

“It’s either strikes or students, and we’re with the students,” he said under repeated questioning from New Democrats.

Lecce said as long as CUPE has its strike threat in place, the government has “no choice” but to pass the legislation.

But interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said that “what we heard is the government saying to CUPE, to educational workers, to school secretaries, to custodians … put down your hammer. Well, he’s holding his hammer over their heads and he’s not taking it down.”

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, noted that one-third of her members are education workers and “what we see happening to CUPE is something that we see happening in our future as well.”

However, she said so far, her union’s talks with the province have been cordial and a few items have already been signed off on.

Liberal education critic Mitzie Hunter — a former education minister — said the “environment for bargaining has been extremely poisoned” if the government foists a deal on CUPE and bans strikes before they’ve even walked off the job.

The bill introduced by Ford’s Progressive Conservatives would use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

That move has prompted much criticism, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In a call Wednesday, Trudeau told Ford that invoking the notwithstanding clause “is wrong and inappropriate, and should only ever be used in the most exceptional of circumstances,” according to the prime minister’s office.

However, Ford “made clear that shutting down classrooms would have an unacceptable impact on students who are already struggling after two years of pandemic disruption. He also reiterated that Ontario is determined, if necessary, to pass legislation to keep classrooms open and ensure certainty and stability for parents and students now and in the future,” said a statement from his office.

The government’s most recent proposal was an increase from the original offer of two per cent for those earning less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others. Benefits and pensions would remain largely unchanged.

CUPE, however, says that the government’s final offer means that well under half of its members would be eligible for the 2.5 per cent yearly increase and that it is not interested in two-tiered wage increases.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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