Education Minister Stephen Lecce says there is a “credible pathway” to a deal with the union representing 55,000 school support staff — but says CUPE needs to be “reasonable” at the bargaining table.
“We aren’t all horribly far apart on a lot of issues — in fact, on some of the major issues we’ve been able to seek alignment,” Lecce told the Star in a phone interview Friday morning, just hours before bargaining talks were set to resume with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in an attempt to avoid a strike Monday morning that will shut down hundreds of schools across the province.
There are a “a few issues that will be negotiated at the table over the weekend, but I do believe for families and for students themselves that there’s a pathway to resolve this, and it really rests with, I think largely, the union being reasonable.”
Lecce said “the government has demonstrated reasonability, flexibility” that puts students first, he said.
He said he is “cautiously optimistic” of getting a deal, “however I always emphasize that it does take two to tango.”
With talks resuming for the weekend, “that is a good step in trying to find a pathway that mitigates from this disruption that the union has imposed on so many families in the province by escalating this.”
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, has said “any job action we take will have at its heart the protection of education services for students” and has blamed the Doug Ford government’s cutbacks for the labour strife.
Hundreds of CUPE members across the province have been laid off, or seen their hours cut, as boards balanced their budgets.
“This year we’ve seen those services decimated: school libraries closed over students’ lunch breaks because there aren’t enough library workers … eight or nine students with special needs now supported by a single education assistant; communications with parents affected because some schools have lost their school secretaries … If it takes job action to restore these services, then so be it. This is something worth fighting for,” Walton said.
On Thursday, a number of school boards — including Toronto, York and Peel public — said they could not safely remain open if CUPE members walk off the job.
Lecce said, “I think it’s new for all of us to see CUPE make this decision … in 48 hours” when in previous negotiations, a partial withdrawal of services went on for weeks.
He called the escalation “regrettable.”
“I think we are all adapting to this new ramp-up by CUPE that has a traumatic impact on kids in the province, and families. Out of an abundance of caution, (boards) made these determinations,” Lecce also said.
“We are in a position that we ought not be in, and the union has imposed this type of circumstance on families when we shouldn’t be here.”
In the past, only teachers strikes have led to the immediate closing of schools, and boards have said they needed to give parents notice in order to make alternate child-care plans.
Key issues in negotiations with CUPE include what the union calls “service security” — or jobs and hours for their members, and the level of service they provide to students, especially those with special needs. It has also said it will not accept concessions.
The government and school boards are focusing on sick leave and short-term disability — which provides 11 days at 100 per cent of pay and another 120 at 90 per cent. CUPE workers take an average of 15.
At 100 per cent pay, that costs about $15 million per day.
Across the education sector, it amounts to a total of $50 million per sick day, and the government has said that money could be better invested in students.
The school boards have said a “modest” reduction in the percentage paid is on the table, but are seeking no changes to the number of days.
However, Walton — whose members earn an average of $38,000 a year — said any reduction in longer-term sick leave pay could push workers into poverty “at the lowest point in their lives,” such as after a cancer diagnosis or work-related injury.
In a brief posted on the bargaining website of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, the government and school boards are seeking to decrease their 90 per cent short-term disability pay to 60 per cent for teachers.
Should a deal be struck with CUPE by Monday morning, schools will open as usual. Teachers and other workers not represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees are required to report to work regardless of what happens during weekend negotiations.
“We need to give parents as much notice as possible,” said Maria Rizzo, chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, told the Star that keeping schools open in the event of a CUPE strike was not an option.
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“It is not safe for children or staff — special-need kids require one-on-one education assistants and this is our biggest worry,” she said. School cleanliness and safety is also an issue, she said.
Should a strike be called, in Toronto, picket lines will be set up at both the public and Catholic board headquarters, as well as outside Premier Doug Ford’s constituency office in Etobicoke.
Louise Sirisko, director of the York Region District School Board, has acknowledged “it is very rare and exceptional for the YRDSB to close schools to students.”
In a letter to families, she also said “this was not a decision made lightly and done so because of serious concerns about the safety of our students. In examining all possible avenues for contingency planning, there is no capacity to cover the skilled work of these 5,500 staff members.”
In 2001, a strike by CUPE workers in the Toronto public board lasted three weeks before schools were shut down. At that time, special needs students were told to stay at home, and non-union staffers were deployed to clean schools at night.
CUPE workers staged a work-to-rule in 2015 province-wide, which lasted about six weeks.
Other boards that will close all schools include Dufferin-Peel Catholic; Kawartha Pine Ridge; Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington Catholic; and Waterloo Catholic.
Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board will open Monday 15 minutes before classes start and close 15 minutes after the final bell.
A handful of boards, such as Ottawa public, remain unaffected as none of their workers are represented by CUPE.
Boards are urging kids to take home textbooks and any belongings they may need on Friday, and say school-based daycares run by third parties are expected to remain open.
School-use permits have also been put on hold for now, and Toronto public school board’s elementary athletic association has also cancelled all sporting events for Monday and Tuesday, including cross-country competitions.
“We hope to settle this by the weekend” and avoid a strike, Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, told the Star. “We want to be very clear to say, we hope to not get there.”
Should staff walk out Monday, the issue is certain to come up at the federal leadership debate that evening as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has repeatedly tried to link Ontario’s premier to federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
Indeed, Liberal candidate Marco Mendicino — running in Eglinton-Lawrence — held a press conference Friday morning in Toronto to talk about “Conservative cuts to education.”
Asked about Conservative candidates who are getting an earful about Ontario’s education woes while going door to door, Scheer told reporters Thursday that education unions have gone on strike under “governments of all stripes,” including the Dalton McGuinty Liberals and Bob Rae’s NDP.
“People in Ontario understand this is a provincial issue and it’s up to the union representatives and the provincial government to come to a deal,” Scheer said.
Concerns have also been raised that many Ontario schools are booked as federal voting stations, and it is unclear if they could remain so during a shutdown.