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Hundreds of Members of CUPE New Brunswick and supporters protested in front of the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton, N.B., on Nov. 2, 2021.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

Ontario education workers’ initial wage demand – an 11.7-per-cent hike in hourly salaries annually – was an ambitious ask, say labour-relations experts, but expected given inflationary conditions and how little this specific group of workers have seen their wages increase over the past decade.

“If you look at the last three decades in labour negotiations, a 2-per-cent wage increase was considered a big victory,” said Stephanie Ross, associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University. “So this was really an ambitious demand. But there’s a strong case to be made that it is justified because we’re talking about some of the lowest paid public-sector workers in the country living through high inflation.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) current standoff with the Ontario government over the hourly salaries of 55,000 workers in the public-school sector (people such as education assistants, early child care educators and school maintenance staff) is taking place at a particularly fraught economic time. Inflation levels have hovered between 6 and 8 per cent over the past seven months, and most public-sector workers in Ontario have been subject to a wage-increase cap of 1 per cent since 2019.

Education support staff have also obtained lower-than-average wage increases over the past decade, compared with their other public-sector peers.

Data from CUPE and the provincial government show that between 2011 and 2021, Ontario public-sector workers saw their average annual salaries, on a nominal basis, increase by 17.6 per cent, while CUPE education workers obtained raises of just 8.8 per cent in that same time period.

“We haven’t seen collective bargaining in the context of high inflation for some time,” said Robert Hickey, a professor of employment relations at Queen’s University.

“On the surface, an 11.7-per-cent annual increase would make one’s jaw drop, but when you take into account 7-per-cent inflation, the wage-freezing bill, and that these CUPE workers are lower paid than most public-sector workers, it’s not that high of an ask,” Prof. Hickey said.

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Talks between CUPE and the province over a new collective agreement for education workers broke down Thursday. The union issued a strike warning on Sunday, and the Ford government has now passed back-to-work legislation, which includes a notwithstanding clause that effectively prevents the union from using the courts to oppose the legislation. The union and its members plan to carry out what would now be an illegal strike on Friday.

On Wednesday, in an attempt to come closer to the government’s wage position, CUPE revised its demands, asking for an annual 6-per-cent wage increase for the next four years. The government is asking CUPE to agree to a 2.5-per-cent annual wage increase for employees who make under $43,000 and a 1.5-per-cent annual wage increase for those who make more.

The average annual salary of both full-time and part-time CUPE education workers in Ontario is $39,000. Almost all of these workers earn less than $60,000 annually, according to data from the union.

In Ontario, private-sector workers in the educational-services sector (such as college professors, private tutors and teaching assistants) have seen their wages grow by 13 per cent over the past one year, and 6 per cent over the past three years, according to Statistics Canada data.

And for context, across the country, average hourly wages have increased 5.2 per cent on a year-over-year basis as of September, 2022.

Neither private-sector employers nor governments are used to granting such massive wage increases, because they haven’t had to in years, Prof. Ross noted. “This labour conflict is also a specifically difficult one for the public to swallow because it is about public-sector workers and they are thinking about it from the vantage point of being taxpayers.”

But as employers grapple with the reality of a tight labour market and high inflation, they have had to budge more than usual on wages. And there is evidence that both private and public-sector unions across the country have garnered some significant double-digit wage wins in recent months.

Last week, hundreds of bakery workers in Toronto represented by Unifor – most of them earning just above minimum wage – secured a 9-to-13-per-cent hourly salary increase over the course of the next three years. And more recently in British Columbia, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation negotiated an agreement that would see teachers make $10,000 to $13,500 more annually by the end of the three-year bargaining term.

Crucially, however, just this year in Ontario, more than 300,000 public-sector workers are expected to head to the negotiating table with the province, many of them coming off three years of a wage-increase cap because of Bill 124. All 258,000 unionized school-board employees – including CUPE’s 55,000 education workers – have completed the three-year period of wage restraint and had collective agreements that ended on Aug. 31.

That could set up even more fraught bargaining between the province and public-sector unions, according to Jim Stanford, a labour economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, a Vancouver-based think tank.

“You have all these workers that have come off three years of an imposed wage cap,” he said. “The government is going to have to anticipate that unions will ask for some kind of catch-up on wage losses, plus recognition of current inflation.”

Lana Payne, national president of Unifor, told The Globe and Mail that her union was closely watching how negotiations will play out between CUPE and the provincial government because of the potential ripple effect on all union negotiations.

“Sometimes you see these moments spill over into the private sector – employers will point toward wage increases that governments agreed to and use that to negotiate,” Ms. Payne said.

“This is definitely a window of opportunity for unions,” she added. “How long it lasts, I’m not sure, but it’s a chance for some of the lowest paid workers to finally get big increases.”