School strike averted as CUPE, province reach tentative deal for support staff

Class is not dismissed.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees and the provincial government managed to reach a tentative deal Sunday night — meaning no strike by 55,000 caretakers, educational assistants, early childhood educators and office staff.

Schools across Ontario were to open as usual Monday morning, a relief for parents who faced ongoing uncertainty. Many had spent the weekend rushing to secure alternative care for their children after a number of boards said schools could not remain open in the event of a walkout.

“Parents can rest easy knowing that the government worked tirelessly to ensure their children remain in the classroom, where they belong,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in announcing the agreement Sunday night, later saying “all parties can leave this deal with a sense of optimism.”

While he did not release specifics, Lecce said all sides “achieved some incremental success.”

Laura Walton, who heads CUPE’s school board council of unions, said her negotiating team was able to “push back” on sick leave concessions and secured a “local priorities” fund of up to $ 20 million to bring back services for students and jobs her members have lost because of budget cuts, plus “modest” wage increases.

“This deal was done because parents, students, families across this province spoke loudly to say that they supported us and were defending us for what we were defending for them,” she said.

“We didn’t give up anything,” she also said.

Sources told the Star the only real win for the government was in holding CUPE to a one per cent wage increase in each year of the three-year deal.

Toronto Catholic District School Board chair Maria Rizzo welcomed news of an agreement, saying a strike would have been tough on parents.

“What a relief for families who live paycheque to paycheque,” she said.

Her board was among those that had planned to shut down. Others included the Toronto District School Board and the public and Catholic boards in Durham, Peel and York. The Halton Catholic board was also prepared to shutter schools, while the Halton and Hamilton public boards said they would remain open.

CUPE, the province and school board associations returned to the table late Friday afternoon and continued bargaining all weekend to avert a strike.

The deal still needs to be ratified.

The Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association said it was pleased with the outcome, as was the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

“All the parties worked hard together at the table to reach a fair and responsible agreement that will keep students in the classroom,” said OPSBA president Cathy Abraham. “Education workers play an important role in our schools, and this agreement is a recognition that we value the contribution they make to the educational experience of our students every day.”

Support staff began a work-to-rule campaign last Monday to put pressure on negotiations. Two days later, CUPE announced that its members would hit the picket lines this week if talks faltered.

The government had said one of the key issues was sick leave and how it leads to a “revolving door” of staff in schools. The province had previously announced a one per cent cap on public sector raises.

Lecce told the Star on Friday that a deal was within reach, but that CUPE needed to be “reasonable.”

He said Sunday night that the tentative deal has “strengthened the integrity of the sick leave system,” but it remained “compassionate” for workers.

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Walton, however, said sick leave was taken “off the table,” and the union managed to “retain the existing sick leave plan,” something she said is “critical for us to provide … to our members.”

The union was seeking what it calls “service security” — or job security and consistent hours for staff to serve children, especially those with special needs. Hundreds of CUPE workers were laid off across the province as school boards balanced their books amid cutbacks.

CUPE had also said it would not accept any concessions.

Milton mother Maria Garito, whose son is autistic, said she was “relieved to hear an agreement has been reached and my son will be accessing the education he deserves, as (will) all students in this province. My hope, however, is that this government recognizes that more work needs to be done to ensure special-needs students are supported with consistent resources.”

“Parents can rest easy knowing that the government worked tirelessly to ensure their children remain in the classroom, where they belong,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in announcing the agreement Sunday night, later saying “all parties can leave this deal with a sense of optimism.”
“Parents can rest easy knowing that the government worked tirelessly to ensure their children remain in the classroom, where they belong,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in announcing the agreement Sunday night, later saying “all parties can leave this deal with a sense of optimism.”Cole Burston/The Toronto STar

Premier Doug Ford said that “throughout this process our goal has been to establish agreements that respect taxpayers, students and families, while also recognizing the important contributions of our front-line education workers.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, however, blamed him for the chaos.

“While we have narrowly avoided school closures, it’s clear that Doug Ford’s devastating education cuts are hurting kids in classrooms across Ontario,” she said Sunday.

“After an unnecessarily stressful weekend, parents and students across Ontario will be relieved to hear that school is on tomorrow and that education workers will be on the job providing the services that make our schools work.”

Education professor Charles Pascal said “the political pressure was on the government to settle.”

Pascal, a former deputy minister of education who is now at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said “if they don’t blink, the public will know they created the impetus for a strike, not the union.”

Meanwhile, underscoring the electoral importance of the labour unrest in Ontario schools, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will campaign Monday with teachers in suburban Ottawa.

Trudeau, a former teacher who has children in Ontario’s public system, wants to link federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to Ford’s policies.

To that end, on the morning of the only English-language leaders debate, he will meet at a Boys and Girls Club with teachers who have been affected by Ford’s decision to increase class sizes, which has meant fewer teaching positions in the province.

With files from Robert Benzie

Kristin Rushowy

TORONTO STAR

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