Two local unions that represent York Region’s public education support workers, and caretaking and maintenance staff, are poised for a strike vote that could spell job action at local schools the week of Sept. 23.
Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 1734 and 1196, which together represent about 4,300 members in the third largest school board in the province, join their counterparts across Ontario in holding strike votes before Sept. 15.
The provincial body charged with negotiating a new collective agreement for about 55,000 education support workers in the public, Catholic, English, and French school system on wages and benefits, sick leave and job security, will announce the results Sept. 17.
Ontario School Board Council of Unions president Laura Walton told NewmarketToday she expects members to deliver a “strong strike mandate”.
Central bargaining began in May and is continuing, with talks set for Sept. 17 and 18. However, on Sept. 5, the council filed a no board report, which puts it in a legal strike position the last week of September. The current school board contracts expired Aug. 31.
In a Sept. 6 statement, the council said the Progressive Conservative government “will not move from proposals that hurt students by cutting their services, consider proposals that will ensure a fairer deal for CUPE education workers, and seem unwilling to work with us to reach an agreement that will give Ontario students a well-supported, well-rounded, publicly funded and publicly delivered education”.
Newly minted Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the rookie MPP for King-Vaughan who took over the contentious file in June, expressed disappointment at the union move, and noted in a statement that with the appointment of senior labour mediator Bill Kaplan, he believes differences at the bargaining table can be resolved.
“I believe that with the assistance of Mr. Kaplan, we can resolve our differences … so that students can remain in class where they belong. My team is ready to continue meeting to negotiate a deal that puts our students first and provides the predictability our parents deserve,” Lecce said.
Here in York Region, CUPE Local 1734 president Todd Canning said wide-ranging cuts to education funding are having a “trickle-down effect” on his members, which include early childhood educators in full-day kindergarten classes, educational assistants, clerical and administrative staff, and technical workers in all 300 buildings within the York Region District School Board.
“The cuts are affecting student learning and, from the perspective of where most of our members work in the special-needs area, the cuts are manifesting down to our most vulnerable students,” Canning said, adding that he’s grateful the York public board’s leadership has been able to avoid layoffs for his members this school year.
“But we’re getting compressed and the workload is an issue because our members are being asked to work with more students and when these students have needs, it becomes more difficult. That’s a concern for us, and we want the greater community to understand,” he said.
For example, within Local 1734’s 3,200-person membership, there were more than 2,000 active incident injury reports on the books by the beginning of June 2018.
“The injuries in our membership have never been so high in the history of our local,” Canning said. “We’re seeing broken bones, and head injuries are huge with us right now, because kids are winging stuff around, and our members are getting struck and hit.”
“It’s not about the individual students, we love these kids,” he added. “It’s becoming challenging to look after these kids and give them the best educational experience possible based on the cuts. That’s the real issue and the root of the whole situation.”
“The kids don’t need less, they need more, and that’s what this government doesn’t understand,” he said. “Everybody out there, I think, should have a compassionate heart for these types of students and their needs, and it’s growing.”
An analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released in early September showed that all 72 of Ontario’s school boards are experiencing cuts in total operating funding or per-student spending.
In York Region’s public board, per-student funding is $257 less in 2019-2020 than in 2017-2018. York’s Catholic board has been hit harder with $362 less per student this school year, and a six per cent or $36.2 million cut in its operating funding.
"Over the past year, following changes to education funding in Ontario has felt like watching a cups-and-ball magic trick,” said Ricardo Tranjan, a senior researcher with the CCPA's Ontario office. “Contradictory government announcements, the usage of obtuse terms such as ‘attrition protection’, and the moving of money between funding envelopes have created a general sense of confusion as to what is happening to schools in this province. ...Misleading announcements can only conceal so much: a cut is a cut. And these cuts will have many short and long-term negative impacts on Ontario’s children and youth.”
The Ontario government’s vision of education emphasizes modernization of the curriculum and classrooms, to ensure the sector is fiscally sustainable.
CUPE Local 1734 will hold its strike vote today, Monday, Sept. 9. Local 1196, which represents 1,100 caretakers, skilled trades and maintenance workers, held its vote Sept. 7.
If contract negotiations break down, a mandate for job action doesn’t mean education support workers will hit the pavement right away, Canning said.
“It might look like the last round of contract negotiations where they did some work-to-rule, but still be on the job,” he said. “It’s probably going to be quite the battle and we want the parents on our side, they are our biggest supporters. We’re advocating for their children, and the flip side of that is that our jobs will be saved.”
“We’re not even asking for raises, just cost-of-living adjustments,” Canning said. “And that seems to be a conversation-breaker for this government.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association also took aim at what it calls misleading statements made publicly by Education Minister Lecce.
“Ontarians are rightly upset about the loss of teachers and education workers, reduced supports, overcrowded classrooms, and limited course options that have resulted from the government’s cuts,” president Liz Stuart said in a statement. “But the Minister’s continued misrepresentations are disrespectful of everyone in the education community, and certainly are not helpful toward fostering rational and productive collective bargaining.”
“If he is sincere about making a good faith effort to reach agreements as soon as possible, he would be wise to stop undermining the bargaining process by trying to avoid responsibility for the government’s disastrous handling of our world-class publicly funded education system,” Stuart said.
Legislative reform to the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act requires five days notice be given before any strike action, so the community will know in advance and can plan accordingly.