On July 31, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) filed for conciliation after 10 days of bargaining with the Council of Trustees’ Associations (CTA) and the provincial government. RankandFile.ca spoke with Laura Walton, President of CUPE’s provincial bargaining agent, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), to discuss bargaining so far and the issues at stake for the 55,000 education workers they represent across Ontario.
“We recognize that the contract expires on August 31s. We recognize that our goal has always been ensuring quality services for our students, our schools and our communities and we recognize that we were heading towards back-to-school going nowhere very fast,” said Walton of the bargaining process so far.
It was at the latest date that the bargaining committee voted to file for conciliation. A conciliation officer is expected to be present at the next bargaining date, on August 14.
Walton describes a near stalemate in negotiations, with the union taking the step to bring in a third party to move things along as the contract expiration and back-to-school draw nearer.
“If the minister is serious about maintaining – I think she called it peace in the education system or something – if they’re serious about that, that was not shown in the response to our package. If you’re serious about it, then you use all the tools at your disposal to work on good collective negotiations. Because negotiations are two parties – it’s not just one party demanding – it’s two parties. So that’s what the conciliation officer is really there to do, to work with the two parties and make sure both voices are heard. That’s why we chose this route,” said Walton. “Because we view the work that we do as integral to the education system and we are willing to get somebody in their to help us, because we are recognizing this isn’t going well. And if we want to avoid work stoppages then it’s best to call in someone who can assist you rather than digging in your heels.”
Walton called the response from the province “extremely concessionary in nature” and said it “would chip away at everything that our members currently have”.
“So we feel that they’ve been clear that this is their position and we’ve been clear that this is our position so it just makes common sense that we attempt to bring in a conciliation officer to see if we can get anything, get any movement before back to school starts.”
Walton explains that the union is not just fighting to protect benefits for their members, but also the service that education workers (which includes education support staff like Education Assistants, secretaries, and custodians) provide.
“The key for education workers is the quality and the level of services that we’re about to provide our students, our schools and our communities. So in that case it means ensuring a level of staffing in all of our groups to provide the services. From our perspective our jobs provide services. So when we start losing jobs through attrition or cut backs it in fact just means we’re losing services in our schools.” That is, cuts from the province aren’t just an attack on workers, but also an attack on the public education system.
Walton explains that along with job security, funding for professional development and wages are also important issues for education workers.
Recent cuts from the Ford administration add additional strain to the bargaining process. Legislation like Bill 124 which limits salary increases to 1% per year, is a huge hit to all workers in the public sector, but especially workers who were already making inadequate salaries.
“Unlike teachers,” she says, “the average person I represent makes about $38,000 a year.” According, CUPE data, members have experienced years of frozen wages and with inflation, they are actually making less now than they did in 2012.
Indirect changes, like cuts to the autism program which will result in more students needing a higher level of care and attention as they enter public schools, also impact education workers.
Walton says CUPE have been doing outreach to help the public understand the role education workers play and the impact that cuts and unfair contracts have on students, along with workers.
“When you have a government that is cutting back, that’s the service. That’s the service level we provide. When we have a government that’s not providing any money for training, that impacts the services we provide. So we’ve done a good job of having those conversations with the public so they understand that what we’re negotiating is not just merely for our members, but to ensure the best quality of service in the publicly funded and publicly delivered education system. And that’s really what we’re standing behind.”
On August 11 hundreds of CUPE leaders from across the province came together to discuss the bargaining process and prepare for the next bargaining dates, currently scheduled for August 14 and 15. At the meeting CUPE’s school board leaders overwhelmingly supported a job action plan. The school mandate given by CUPE school board leaders marks the first step of a two-step process to initiate job action by 55,000 CUPE education workers. The second step will be province-wide strike votes, which will be taken by the membership before September 17.
“We’ve spent the last couple of weeks traveling the province and actually hearing from our members on the ground,” says Walton. “What their thoughts are, what they’re willing to commit to, where do they think we need to go. Sunday will just be the culmination of that. So it’s something as a leader, I’m super proud that I represent a union that is really so grassroots and taking direction at that level.”
While Ford has referred to labour organizers in education as “union thugs,” and taken the summer off. Education workers at CUPE have spent their summer doing outreach with both the public and their members.
“It’s such a big province and organizing from the top level is not going to mobilize the masses,” she says.”
According to Walton, CUPE are the only union in Ontario representing teachers or education workers currently in active bargaining. Other unions representing teachers and education workers in Ontario include the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) and Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens/Association of Franco-Ontarian Teachers (AEFO).
“OSSTF are not actively bargaining right now because they’re waiting for the Ontario Labour Relations Board for a decision on central/local split, so we’re watching that carefully. My understanding is OECTA is coming in this month and ETFO as well, but I don’t believe either of them has started actively bargaining. And I believe AEFO don’t begin bargaining until September, so we recognize that right now we’re the only ones that they have and though it’s important to us to represent our members we also stand in solidarity with all the education worker partners.”
Both OECTA and ETFO were unable to share a comment with RankandFile.ca during bargaining, though a representative from ETFO confirmed talks at the central bargaining table have started. OSSTF did not respond to requests for comment.