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Ontario government plans legislation to pre-empt strike by CUPE school support staff


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Ontario government plans legislation to pre-empt strike by CUPE school support staff

The Ontario government plans to introduce pre-emptive back-to-work legislation on Monday and impose a contract on 55,000 school support staff after CUPE said its workers would strike starting Friday.

The two sides met Sunday in an unscheduled bargaining session, after the Canadian Union of Public Employees gave the required five days’ notice of job action. The government then presented what it said was its final offer.

“We went to the meeting optimistic … and instead they gave us an ultimatum,” said Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

The legislation was already drawn up and the government “had no intention of negotiating fairly with education workers,” she said.

The four-year offer the government presented is the one that will be imposed on custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants and office staff as part of the legislation.

The move comes after Education Minister Stephen Lecce has repeatedly said he would not allow turmoil in schools after two-plus years of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, Lecce said “we are doing everything we can to keep students in class, and that’s why (Sunday) we asked CUPE to meet us back at the table and presented a more generous offer.”

He said the legislation is needed “because CUPE refuses to withdraw their intent to strike.”

The government’s final offer boosts wage increases slightly, to 2.5 per cent each year for those earning less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent for everyone else. That’s a change from the original offer of two per cent for those earning less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for those earning more. Benefits and pensions would remain largely unchanged.

However, imposing contracts on workers has proved costly in the past, with the previous Liberal government under premier Dalton McGuinty doing so in 2012.

Since then, courts have ruled in favour of teacher unions, saying Bill 115 — which was part of an austerity push that froze pay and ended the banking of sick days — violated their collective agreements. The province has since paid out more than $210 million to the unions, including CUPE, as a result.

Earlier Sunday, Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said “our top priority is to negotiate a fair collective agreement that is fully funded and in the best interest of our students. We will be attending the meeting with the other parties (Sunday).”

Boards across the province had also begun issuing plans in case of strikes, with some saying schools would have to close, and others saying they would stay open.

CUPE represents staff in a large number of boards across Ontario, including all of those in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Toronto Catholic board had said its schools would be shuttered if staff went on strike, as did the Kawartha Pine Ridge public board and its Catholic counterpart.

The Toronto District School Board had said more information would be shared Monday but asked families to “prepare for all possibilities” given that CUPE represents some 14,600 employees.

The Halton District School Board planned to run on an alternate-day schedule for elementary students, meaning kids would be in school one day and learning online from home the next, to keep schools clean as long as possible.

CUPE is seeking roughly 11 per cent in annual wage increases. Its members are typically the lowest paid in schools, averaging $39,000 a year — though that includes part-time workers.

CUPE is also seeking increased pay for overtime, as well as more support staff and guaranteed staffing and service levels for students in schools.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board chair Dawn Danko had said schools would remain open this week but added “we are disappointed that bargaining has not progressed positively … We are asking the minister of education to consider a better deal that is supportive of CUPE education workers and does not cause further learning disruption for students.”

NDP education critic Chandra Pasma blamed the government for bringing the province “to the brink of disruption in our schools,” adding that “they are the only ones who can stop the clock on this countdown.”

Ontario school boards that would be affected by a CUPE strike:

Algoma District School Board

Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board

Bloorview School Authority

Bluewater District School Board

Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board

Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario

Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario

Conseil scolaire catholique Providence

Conseil scolaire catholique de district des Grandes Rivières

Conseil scolaire catholique du Nouvel-Ontario

Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir

Conseil scolaire public du Grand Nord de l’Ontario

Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est

Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l’Est ontarien

Conseil scolaire catholique Franco-Nord

Conseil scolaire public du Nord-Est de l’Ontario

District School Board of Niagara

District School Board Ontario North East

Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

Durham Catholic School Board

Durham District School Board

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Grand Erie District School Board

Greater Essex County District School Board

Halton Catholic District School Board

Halton District School Board

Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Hastings & Prince Edward District School Board

Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board

Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Keewatin-Patricia District School Board

Lakehead District School Board

Lambton Kent District School Board

Limestone District School Board

London District Catholic School Board

Near North District School Board

Niagara Catholic District School Board

Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board

Northeastern Catholic District School Board

Northwest Catholic District School Board

Ottawa Catholic District School Board

Peel District School Board

Peterborough, Victoria, Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board

Rainbow District School Board

Rainy River District School Board

Renfrew County Catholic District School Board

Renfrew County District School Board

Simcoe County District School Board

Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board

St. Clair Catholic District School Board

Sudbury Catholic District School Board

Thames Valley District School Board

Toronto Catholic District School Board

Toronto District School Board

Trillium Lakelands District School Board

Upper Canada District School Board

Upper Grand District School Board

Conseil scolaire Viamonde

Waterloo Catholic District School Board

Wellington Catholic District School Board

Windsor Essex Catholic District School Board

York Catholic District School Board

York Region District School Board

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

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