The first day of action by 55,000 school support staff was met with some confusion — and concern.
According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Local 4400, office staff at one Toronto school arrived 10 minutes before their 8 a.m. shift, but were told by a vice-principal that they weren’t allowed in.
“People were calling in a panic,” said Colleen Costa, recording and corresponding secretary for Toronto Education Workers, CUPE Local 4400. “… There was a bit of a mix-up there, but it was all corrected.”
At another school, a principal had lined up parent volunteers to come into the office and assist by buzzing in those at the door — a duty staff are no longer performing — but that’s not permitted, added Costa.
And parents are wondering how long schools will remain clean.
On day one of the job action, CUPE and the government and school boards said they were willing to return to negotiations, but no dates have been set.
CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions says it “would be happy to meet the parties again in mediation if there is the prospect of meaningful progress.”
However, it warned that “our members are prepared to escalate their job action plan if a fair collective agreement cannot be negotiated.”
A government source said “now we’re in the process of effectively determining what will be discussed and any terms that might need to be met before we agree to specific dates.”
At an unrelated announcement Monday in Nobleton, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said “I think it’s critical that the government, which is one of the three partners at the table, continues to be a constructive force to land a deal.”
He said he is hoping to get more bargaining dates “locked in in short order so that we can continue negotiating and land a deal as soon as humanly possible.”
Lecce has repeatedly warned that the safety of children should not be compromised during the job action — but appeared to take a softer tone Monday saying “I think in the heart of hearts of many CUPE members, I know many of them myself, good people, work very hard, that they will never compromise the safety of kids.”
The job action impacts the caretakers, office staff, educational assistants and early childhood educators at most school boards.
CUPE has been reeling from recent cuts by school boards as they balanced their budgets last spring, with hundreds of jobs lost and hours cut because of funding shortfalls.
Support staff earn an average of $38,000 a year.
The province has already announced that public servant raises will be capped at 1 per cent a year, and said the cost of absenteeism has been the “major ask” in this round of negotiations.
NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said when it comes to the job action, “it didn’t have to be this way. We should never have come to this moment.”
“The government set the tone when they went after students,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park. “They went to war with students, they went to war with unions before anybody sat down at the table and they made cuts to our education system that are right now impacting students in their classrooms.”
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
The sides bargained for days last week and had returned to the table Saturday and Sunday, in the hopes of landing a deal before the planned job action. Their last work-to-rule was in 2015.
The trustees’ associations said the current sick leave plans provide 131 days off — 11 at full salary and 120 at 90 per cent salary for short-term disability, and that CUPE members take an average of more than 15 each school year. The school boards are hoping for a “modest alteration to the percentage of wages paid in the short-term disability leave.”
CUPE school board bargaining President Laura Walton has told the Star the sick leave provisions provide members with help during the “lowest point in their lives” — like when dealing with cancer treatment.
Without retaining most of their pay, members would end up in poverty, she added.
In the meantime, the work-to-rule campaign has many parents worried.
Farhana Tahir, whose two children attend Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park, is especially concerned about how long it might last.
“I want them to find solutions to whatever issues they have between them and make sure things return to normal,” she said Monday.
Outside St. Michael Catholic School near St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, Chantal Hill wondered how long schools can stay clean.
“Kids can get sick if the place is not well cleaned and maintained,” she said. “These are important jobs and if they’re not happening, it’s troubling.”
During the work-to-rule, caretakers are not picking up garbage outside the school, emptying outside garbage bins, or maintaining the school grounds by doing things such as cutting grass and shovelling. They are, however, still doing safety checks to ensure playgrounds and yards are safe.
Inside the school, caretakers won’t clean any areas such as hallways, office areas and gymnasiums.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Are you concerned about the safety and cleanliness of schools with the CUPE support staff’s work to rule hitting Ontario?