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CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto after education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Nov. 4, 2022.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government has reached a tentative deal with its education support workers, averting a strike that would have shuttered schools across the province and forced more than a million students to learn remotely.

The tentative contract will be taken to 55,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) for a ratification vote, starting this Thursday. The deal includes an average annual pay increase of 3.59 per cent over a four-year contract, the union said.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Sunday that while all parties had received some “incremental wins” in the tentative deal, it would also “provide stability for children” and keep them in school after more than two years of pandemic-related education disruptions.

“This is not about unions winning or government winning. It’s about our kids, and they’re going to be in class,” Mr. Lecce told reporters at Queen’s Park.

But Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, an affiliate of CUPE that represents the workers, did not appear enthusiastic about the deal. She told reporters that “as required,” the bargaining committee would recommend members accept the agreement – although, she added, the offer falls short of the union’s demands. Her members include caretakers, early childhood educators, education assistants and other support staff.

“When you’re being told by the government that there is no possible way that they’re going to improve [their offer], then you have to do the right thing as a leader, which often is very uncomfortable, and you need to bring it forth to the workers to use their voice,” she said.

The union said last week that 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 was looking for higher staffing levels and an early childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom, not just classes that have more than 15 students.

Ms. Walton said Sunday that despite the government insisting there was money in the tentative deal for additional student services workers, that isn’t the case.

CUPE issued its required five days’ strike notice on Wednesday, leaving many families anxious about how long their children would be out of school if a deal was not reached. School boards, including the Toronto District School Board, had informed families that students would switch to teacher-led online learning in the event of a strike.

Shayla Bradley, a publicity assistant in Kingston, breathed a sigh of relief when she found out her two children, ages nine and five, would be in school on Monday.

“I don’t think it’s ever good to have kids out of school,” she said. “My daughter is thrilled about it. She loves being in school as much as she can.”

Natalie Fleming, a research co-ordinator at McMaster University in Hamilton, was also glad that a deal had been reached. She said another disruption would have been a setback for her children, ages five and three.

“They really, really need that socialization and running around and all that stuff that I can’t really do just by myself,” she said.

Ms. Fleming had planned on sending her children to camp and sharing child-minding duties with neighbours if there was a prolonged strike, even if it meant dividing her attention between the kids and her work.

“For my own job I feel good about being able to stay 100-per-cent focused,” she said.

The contracts for all of Ontario’s education unions, including teachers’ unions, expired at the end of August, and this was widely expected to be a challenging round of bargaining with Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.

All the other unions are still in negotiations with the government.

Sunday’s tentative agreement follows a tense standoff between CUPE and the provincial government that came to a head in late October, when the union issued a previous five-day strike notice.

That prompted the government to fast-track a piece of legislation that unilaterally imposed a contract on the education workers and used the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause to override their right to strike. The contract the government had sought to impose 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 legislation, known as Bill 28, sparked widespread condemnation in the labour movement, including from private-sector unions that the Ontario government counts as supporters, and from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The government insisted the legislation was needed to keep students in school.

Despite the legislation, union members still walked off the job for two days earlier in the month. The job action resulted in many schools across the province closing their doors.

They returned to work when Mr. Ford vowed to repeal the bill. Bargaining began in earnest once again.

Mr. Ford has backed away from Bill 28′s two-tiered wage scheme. The new tentative deal offers all workers a $1-an-hour wage hike each year of the four-year contract, amounting to an average annual increase of 3.59 per cent.

The parties were in negotiations, with the help of a mediator, at a downtown Toronto hotel for part of last week and throughout the weekend in order to reach a deal on a new contract before a potential strike on Monday.

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