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A teacher walks in the hall of a public school in Scarborough, Ont., on Monday, September 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s education support staff have given their union a mandate to take strike action if negotiations with the province break off.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, said at a news conference on Monday that her members have sent a message to the government that “education cuts are not acceptable” and “it’s time for a meaningful wage increase.”

Support staff voted 96.5 per cent in favour of a strike. About 45,400 votes were cast, and 43,800 voted to take strike action.

OSBCU represents 55,000 support staff, including education assistants, early childhood educators and caretakers.

There is no strike planned at this time, and if talks break down, the union would likely first engage in a work-to-rule job action. However, before any job action can be taken, there’s a process to follow that includes the union asking a conciliator to issue a “no board” report, which means the sides could not reach an agreement, and also giving notice to the public.

OSBCU will return to the bargaining table with the provincial government and school boards on Thursday.

All education union contracts expired at the end of August, and it was widely expected to be a difficult round of bargaining.

Prior to the pandemic, all four of the main education unions had been engaged in job action – ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes – as tensions with the government rose. They reached agreements with the province just as the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020 led to school closings.

The support staff union asked the province for annual raises of about $3.25 an hour, which amounts to roughly 11.7 per cent annually.

The union has also asked for more student supports, including an early childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom. Under the current model, if a kindergarten class has fewer than 16 students, there is no requirement to have an early childhood educator in the room.

The government’s offer includes a 2-per-cent increase each year over a four-year contract for those earning less than $40,000 a year, and a 1.25-per-cent wage hike for those earning more than $40,000. That amounts to 33 to 53 cents an hour, the union said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Monday that he was “extremely disappointed” with the results of the strike vote.

He said that the union was “charging ahead” with a potential strike “while demanding nearly 50 per cent in increased compensation after two difficult years of pandemic disruptions for students.”

At Monday’s news conference at Queen’s Park, Ms. Walton said support staff are among the lowest-paid education workers, and often work multiple jobs and face food and housing insecurity.

“I want to be crystal clear: We do not want to strike. No one wants to strike especially not the lowest-paid education workers in Ontario,” Ms. Walton said. “But education workers have said very clearly if this government will not budge, we are willing to strike for a contract that is good for students, for families and for workers.”

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