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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