The head of Ontario’s elementary teachers’ union says that while families want stability in schools, educators will fight against cuts to public education as they launch contract negotiations with the province.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, or ETFO, on Monday, president Karen Brown told delegates from across the province that the union would “vigorously press” for investments.
All education union contracts expire at the end of August, and negotiations have begun. It is widely expected to be a challenging round of bargaining with Premier Doug Ford’s government.
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 resulted in school closings.
On Monday, the government’s latest offer to the union representing support staff provided a 2-per-cent increase each year over a four-year contract – well below the union’s request – for those earning less than $40,000 a year.
Ms. Brown told delegates that families “are not willing to accept more cuts to public education. … ETFO will continue to vigorously press for the necessary reinvestments in the system.”
ETFO has bargaining dates scheduled with the government and school boards this month.
ETFO initially denied media access to its meeting, a departure from past practices. The union then allowed media to attend Ms. Brown’s opening remarks on Monday but won’t permit entrance to her closing speech on Thursday, saying it pertains to bargaining.
In a media scrum following her speech, Ms. Brown said educators are looking for “compensation that reflects the level of commitment that they invested during this pandemic. They were there, they showed up, they were dependable.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the government is “committed to landing a fair deal with all education unions.”
“My message to parents is this: We will do whatever it takes to get your children back to class, on time, and uninterrupted, with the full learning experience.”
The government’s initial offer also includes a 1.25-per-cent annual increase over a four-year contract for other school support workers who earn more than $40,000. The bargaining documents were made public on Monday by CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, which represents 55,000 support staff that includes education assistants and caretakers.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce, said the offer, which also maintains 11 paid sick days and some changes to short-term disability coverage, was “fair.”
“When considering the total compensation package, including generous benefits and sick leave provisions, this is a fair offer and allows CUPE members to remain competitive with education workers in other sectors,” she said in an e-mail.
However, Laura Walton, president of OSBCU, said the offer was “disheartening” and workers feel “extremely disrespected by this government.” She said many support staff, who are among the lowest paid in education, work multiple jobs and face food and housing insecurity.
Among its requests, the union asked for increases of roughly 11.7 per cent annually and 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.
Ms. Walton said the union will meet with the government again Tuesday. The union leadership will also meet shortly to discuss holding a strike vote.
“We know what workers need in order to be able to continue,” Ms. Walton said.
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