Education Minister Stephen Lecce says there is a “credible pathway” to a deal with the union representing 55,000 school support staff — but urged CUPE to be “reasonable” at the bargaining table as talks continue this weekend to avert a strike.
Parents, meanwhile, are struggling to secure care for their kids in case of a walkout Monday if negotiations between the province, school boards and the Canadian Union of Public Employees fail to reach a deal — leading caretakers, educational assistants, early childhood educators and school office staff to hit the picket lines, shuttering hundreds of schools.
On Friday, Lecce told the Star the sides “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” and said the government “has demonstrated reasonability, flexibility” in talks.
There are 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.
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said in an interview she “(finds) the word reasonable interesting.”
“I don’t find it reasonable that we have students without (educational assistants’) supports, or find it reasonable that we have full-day kindergarten classes with 30 kids in a classroom or find it reasonable that we have cleanliness standards going down” in schools.
“… At the end of the day, being reasonable is something the government and the (school board associations) also have to consider.”
Walton said she will be talking to her team to figure out a way for parents to get information about any potential strike as soon as possible — so they don’t have to wait around until early Monday morning to find out if they need to book a babysitter.
When asked if CUPE would be willing to extend the strike deadline, Walton would “not say it’s possible or impossible. At this point, it’s not something that we have considered.”
Talks remain under a media blackout.
For parents, it will be a weekend of waiting for news. Toronto nurse Jessica Lyons counts herself among the “luckier” ones because she’s on maternity leave, so she can care for her two daughters if a strike happens.
“It’s not that that won’t be chaotic to have them home the whole day and increase my personal chaos, but I think I have a luckier personal situation than many,” she said.
Lyons, a volunteer organizer with the group West End Parents for Public Education, says families are “scrambling” to make other arrangements, paying for camps, checking if their employer will let them work from home or seeing if grandparents can pitch in.
Friday morning at Dewson Street Junior Public School — where Lyons was dropping off daughters Ruby, 8, and Mollye, 6 — parents were exchanging phone numbers to help each other out.
“This is a catastrophe for most families,” she said, putting the blame on the Doug Ford government for the labour strife.
Walton has said “any job action we take will have at its heart the protection of education services for students” as hundreds of CUPE members across the province have been laid off, or seen their hours cut, as boards balanced their budgets.
In the past, only teachers strikes have led to the immediate closing of schools, but 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.
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 said it will not accept any 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.
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The province has already announced it will cap all public sector raises to 1 per cent a year.
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 reached by Monday morning, schools will open as usual. Teachers and other workers not represented by the CUPE are required to report to work if a strike is called.