Last week, negotiations between the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) bargaining agent the Ontario School Board Council of Union (OSBCU) and the province move to mediation as bargaining makes no progress for the 55,000 education workers CUPE represents across Ontario.
RankandFile.ca spoke with OSBCU President Laura Walton about the role of the government and Council of Trustees’ Associations (CTA) in the lack of progress in negotiations.
“We have done as much as we possibly can,” she says. “We have come up with solutions, we have heard concerns, we have offered alternatives. But we’re not willing to take less for our members who are already making less than they were making five years ago. We’re not willing to do that. And I don’t think the public undervalues us in the same way that we’re seeing from the government and or from the [CTA].”
RankandFile.ca last spoke with Walton when CUPE had just filed for conciliation, ahead of bargaining dates through August.
“We had an excellent conciliation officer who has tried really hard to get some conversation going. But in essence, what we’re seeing is the government and the [CTA] are set on having strips to our collective agreement,” explained Walton. “We come from a position of no concession bargaining. But also we need to ensure that we are getting language that ensures service security.”
Mixed messaging from the ministry
In a public statement issued last Thursday, CUPE cites ‘conflicting messages coming from the Minister of Education,’ as one of the concerns in bargaining.
Walton explained that this refers to comments made by Education Minister Stephen Lecce in response to questions about TDSB cuts that local priorities funding was “at the table” in bargaining with CUPE. This funding was negotiated for by the OSBCU during 2016 extension negotiations, and was meant to be used for different services as decided by local unions and school boards.
“We left it pretty open because each community has different needs across the province, but there was a pool of money for custodial and clerical support, and so those were some significant increases in services that we were able to provide for the last two years,” says Walton. The Ford government announced in April that they wouldn’t be continuing with this specific funding. But hearing the Minister state it was back on the table was a positive sign for negotiations.
“So following several days with the conciliation officer and hearing that the minister himself said the local priorities fund was on the bargaining table, we did ask the question [Wednesday] when we were in, but we were told that the only place that it was on the table was in our proposal. To which they had basically responded negatively. So we decided that it would be in our best interest to file for a no board report.”
Filing a no board report means that CUPE members will legally be allowed to strike as of September 23.
“But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be going on strike or taking job action,” clarifies Walton. “But I think it should serve as an indication just how serious we are about ensuring service security for our schools.”
CUPE members have already begun to vote on whether or not to strike and the result of that vote will be in on September 16. The next bargaining dates are set for the 17 and 18 of September. Toronto-based lawyer Bill Kaplan has been appointed mediator for these bargaining sessions.
Hypocritical public statement from Minister
Following this update, Minister Lecce released a statement citing students as a priority, but that isn’t reflected in negotiations, says Walton.
“I believe that with the assistance of Mr. Kaplan, we can resolve our differences at the bargaining table so that students can remain in class where they belong,” reads the statement. “My team is ready to continue meeting to negotiate a deal that puts our students first and provides the predictability our parents deserve.”
However, Walton explains that predictability for parents is something that the government has negatively impacted with reductions to the education services CUPE and OSBCU are fighting to protect.
“We have already started to hear from parents about the reductions of services within the very first week. And the impact it’s having on their children, most notably special needs students. Predictability and stability is not just ‘we can’t have job action’. Predictability and stability is something parents should rely on, and it’s also why I can’t understand why across the province this ministry has reduced funding. That leads to unpredictability. Not what the union is doing.”
Walton maintains that it is the union that are prioritizing students, their parents and communities in this round of bargaining.
“‘Keeping students in the classroom’ is very interesting because we’re keeping students in classrooms that are packed. And we’re keeping students in classrooms that are under-resourced and we’re keeping students in classrooms that are under-serviced. So that is a problem. And so while keeping them in a classroom that is starved for services and resources may be something that he’s willing to accept, that’s not something we’re willing to accept nor is it something that I believe the public is willing to accept.”
‘Extraordinary’ engagement from CUPE memberships
CUPE and the OSBCU have spent their summer doing outreach with the public and their members as the expiry of their contract (which ended August 31s) drew nearer. And despite the lack of movement or compromise from the provincial government in bargaining, the Ford administration’s attacks on workers has galvanized incredible momentum amongst the education workers CUPE represents.
“It’s been extraordinary. It’s been a very very busy time (that has historically been a very quiet time). We really put all of our resources, both human and financial, into getting out and talking to membership about what’s important to them and what they wanted to see and what they wanted us to do.”
According to Walton, strike votes – including those that required renting of entire banquet centres to accommodate members – have had standing room only. Labour Day saw events in communities that have never hosted Labour Day events before.
Outreach has included a meeting of over 300 union leaders from 109 locals across the province and a work-to-rule consultation.
There is no question of entertaining Doug Ford’s narrative that union leadership is pushing for action not supported by members. “We hear Ford talk a lot about these “union bosses” “making” their members do things and our members have been very clear with their mandate and very clear with their directions. So we wanted to provide a clear signal that this is not just the ten people sitting around the table representing CUPE, but this goes deep into our communities of 55,000 workers that are standing behind us. So we wanted to be able to have [strike votes] done before our next date so we could know we were going in with the backing of our membership.”