CUPE’s salary and other bargaining proposals are costly and would not be fair to taxpayers, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Lecce said the demands the union representing school support staff have presented are “astronomical, unreasonable and not consistent with those footing the bill, which is the taxpayer.”
He said the salary boost CUPE has proposed — $3.25 an hour for all workers, or roughly 11.7 per cent a year — plus an end to wage grids, putting all workers at the top rate of pay, among other asks, is akin to a 50 per cent increase.
The province — which had frozen public sector wages at one per cent a year — has offered CUPE workers who earn less than $40,000 a two per cent raise each year over four years, and those above $40,000 a 1.25 per cent annual increase.
CUPE workers are the lowest-paid school board staffers, earning an average of $39,000 a year, though that figure includes part-time workers. They are seeking to make up lost ground in earnings as well as address current inflation.
“What we do with CUPE, what we sign with CUPE, becomes the floor in every other education negotiation,” Lecce said, calling the union’s ask “massive” and, if applied to all other education unions, could cost the province $21 billion.
CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 custodians, school office staff, lunchroom supervisors, early childhood educators and educational assistants, said it was “disheartened” with the government’s offer, noting the province also wants to cut some short-term sick leave benefits.
“The proposal of only $800 on average per year, in the face of skyrocketing inflation, is not going to pay the rent, not going to put food on the table, nor will it address the staffing issues that are rampant in our schools,” President Laura Walton has said.
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“ … What’s really concerning is that, you know, this is the government that talks about better jobs and bigger paycheques. I’m not sure if $800 in the face of rising inflation can be considered a bigger paycheque. It will be just completely swallowed up. And in fact, given the inflation as it is, this is actually a pay cut to these education workers.”
Lecce said the province is protecting “very generous pension, very generous benefits, sick leave and long-term disability.”
CUPE workers, like teachers, are entitled to 11 sick days at full pay and short-term disability of 120 days at 90 per cent pay.
“It’s interesting because with CUPE being at the table before us, we might have a look into the future with it,” Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, has said.
“But (the wage offer) certainly doesn’t reflect the words of the premier or the minister of education, saying that we’re going to be respectful and make sure that we are supporting public education. It’s actually not paying any type of respect to the lowest-paid workers who keep the education system going.”
Lecce has said he wants a normal start to the school year, with extracurricular sports and clubs.
While such activities are voluntary, the unions says no job action is in the works and members are free to run them.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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