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Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, speaks to the media in Toronto on Nov. 16.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s education support workers have ratified a new four-year contract with the province, ending a challenging round of negotiations.

Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) voted 73 per cent in favour of the contract. The new deal will give workers a $1-an-hour wage hike each year of the four-year agreement, amounting to an average annual increase of 3.59 per cent.

The 55,000 members covered by the deal include caretakers, early childhood educators, education assistants and other support staff. Roughly 41,000 workers cast ballots to vote on the new contract.

Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, an affiliate of CUPE that represents the workers, said at a news conference on Monday that her members work hard to help students and don’t earn nearly enough.

“I know that education workers … are worth far more than we are paid,” Ms. Walton said. She had previously not appeared enthusiastic about the deal, but she told reporters she had voted in favour of the contract.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he was “very grateful” to union members for “overwhelmingly” ratifying the deal, which he said would allow students to remain in school after the disruptions of the pandemic.

The ratification vote ends a weeks-long drama that came to a head last month when Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government passed legislation that used the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strip the union of its right to strike. The government retracted the move a week later after members walked out anyway and the labour movement vowed widespread protests.

The contracts for all of Ontario’s education unions, including teachers’ unions, expired at the end of August. All the other unions are still in negotiations with the government.

On Monday, Mr. Lecce would not give a yes-or-no answer when asked whether he would use the notwithstanding clause again to pre-empt a strike. He said he was committed to negotiating voluntary deals.

“The government has been very clear. We are going to negotiate. We’ve always said we’re not going to bring back a bill” like the one the government used to block the CUPE strike, he said.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said negotiations between the government and the team that represents her union’s education support workers were “going well.” She said the team that represents teachers paused discussions while it awaited a labour board decision on whether an issue related to hiring practices should be discussed at the provincial table or separately with individual school boards.

At the high-school level, Karen Littlewood, who represents the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said negotiations have been “slow,” which she added was not unexpected.

“We know that everybody needs stability, and we know that kids need to be in school. We’re at a point where we’re making progress. We haven’t stalled … so we’ll just continue on the way that we’re going,” she said.

Sam Andrey, who was chief of staff for the education minister’s office in Ontario’s former Liberal government, said the deal with CUPE would likely shape other negotiations.

“Given everything that went on with CUPE, maybe the government will be highly motivated to settle with teachers quickly and put this chapter behind them,” said Mr. Andrey, who is now the director of policy and research at the Leadership Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The contract the government had sought to impose on CUPE workers using the notwithstanding clause included 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent hikes for those earning more – much lower than the union’s demands. The government fast-tracked its legislation after the union issued a five-day strike notice in late October.

The subsequent walkout lasted for two days, resulting in many schools across the province closing their doors.

The workers returned to to their jobs when Mr. Ford vowed to repeal the bill.

Late last month, CUPE said the parties had found a “middle ground” on wages – the main point of contention during negotiations – but that the government had refused to invest in services for students and families.

The union issued another five-day strike notice, but all parties were able to reach a tentative deal a day before workers were set to go on strike.

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