Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers announced Wednesday that they will strike on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, if no deal is reached with the government. Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions made the announcement at a 10 a.m. press conference today, surrounded by members of her union and other labour unions who were there to show support.
As for the timing of the strike and the impact it might have on an already beleaguered student body, Walton pointed out that CUPE education workers have been in this position now for 127 days and, had the government been at the table this past summer, this could all have been settled before school even began for the year.
“I think it’s unfortunate that you have to serve notice before anyone believes you’re serious,” Walton stated. “You shouldn’t have to remove your services for someone to value them. I’m not sure why every single time we’re in negotiations we get to this point before the government understands.”
Walton laid out the government’s latest offer, “They offered my co-workers a one-dollar raise per hour for each year of our collective agreement. That amounts to $1,633 per year for the average worker, and, because I know you all love percentages, it’s about 3.59 per cent. And let me be clear, that’s a win for workers. But it’s not enough.”
She went on to say that the union has been demanding more services for students that would equal more employment and more hours for CUPE workers. “This fight started with a focus on services for students. Parents swelled our lines to demand better for their children and we’re not prepared to back down now and abandon parents just because Doug Ford waves a loony in our face.”
CUPE Local 1479 president, Liz James, said in an interview this afternoon, “We are hoping that we can get a fair deal that works for everyone before it comes down to picketing; nobody wants to go on strike. If it comes to that though, we will be ready.”
Asked about Minister of Education Lecce’s claims that the government has offered many fair deals that have been rejected, James pointed out, “Our central bargaining committee spent five months getting this government up to a flat rate one-dollar raise. That dollar is a start to correcting a decade of wage stagnation that’s seen my coworkers lose 11 per cent of our real dollar earnings. That’s why so many of us rely on food banks. That’s why over half of education workers have second jobs to make ends meet.”
Further, she stated that “the government’s deals didn’t include a single cent for student services… They refused to invest in our schools or to invest in our students. We’re fighting for students and families too.”
What would she say to parents with a strike looming? “Our message to other parents is to fight with us. Join us. Tell this government you demand more for your children. Parents have supported us from the very beginning because they know that we are the workers who support their children. Workers were not willing to sell out our allies for a loonie and I firmly believe this shows parents that we are 100 per cent committed to standing up for their children.”
Asked if online learning will even be possible without CUPE workers, should the strike stretch out, Watkins explained, “People seem to forget that online learning worked during the pandemic because we worked. Schools may try to run online learning, but I can tell you it won’t be accessible or equitable to students with special needs. My coworkers are the ones who make sure every student has what they need and without us, online learning will only further the divide between students and harm their learning.”
James’ points echoed those of Walton from earlier in the day, who said, “We have asked. We’ve implored. We’ve practically begged this government who refused to put money into new student Services,” she said. “We wanted early childhood educators in every kindergarten class. We wanted [Educational Assistants] EAs supporting not just students with special needs, but having the appropriate time to do so… The reality is my coworkers are desperate for more hours. The reality is is if we had more hours, we’d be able to offer better services… this government has refused to increase our hours further jeopardizing students, so my coworkers have served notice. And I know what this government is going to say; the line as old as time. They’re gonna call us greedy. Don’t buy that line.”
Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, put out a statement via social media, at 10:21 a.m., before the press conference had even ended, stating, “We are disappointed that only a few short days after talks restarted, CUPE has filed notice to once again shut down classrooms. Since resuming talks, we’ve put forward multiple improved offers that would have added hundreds of millions of dollars across the sector, especially for lower-income workers. CUPE has rejected all of these offers. We are at the table ready to land a fair deal that invests more in lower-income workers and keeps kids in class.”
When this was brought to her attention live, Walton quipped, “I heard that Minister Lecce said that he was ready to negotiate, that he was at the table. I’m not sure what table he’s at but if he lets me know where he is, I’ll head that way.”
To the Premier, she appealed directly: “Let’s sit down and talk about this. Because I know that Doug Ford in his heart is for the little guy, is for the little gal. I know that that’s who he is. And now’s the time I call on him: join us, we are too. Let’s make it happen. Walk out of this together and put it into the history books building into the history books, real solutions that are going to work for students. I heard a lot about Bill Davis when I was in the house the other day. You know, Bill Davis did have a legacy of actually working for public education as a conservative premier. Doug Ford could be the same.”
Comments sought from the local school boards had not been returned by time of publication, nor had comments from Conservative MPP Ric Bresee.