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A school bus passes a TTC streetcar on Queen St. East, on June 13, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

As contracts for education workers and teachers expire at the end of this month, the head of Ontario’s high-school teachers’ union warns that they may be in for a lengthy battle with the provincial government.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, told a meeting of leaders of union locals from across the province that the union would “fight tooth and nail” for wages, benefits, smaller class sizes and less online learning.

The province has already offered school support workers, which includes education assistants and caretakers, a 2-per-cent increase each year over a four-year contract for those earning less than $40,000 a year. Unions have argued that it’s not enough.

Negotiations are underway with all major education unions, and it is widely expected to be a challenging round of bargaining. Prior to the pandemic, education unions had been engaged in job action – ranging from work-to-rule to one-day strikes – as tensions with the government rose. They only reached agreements as the first wave of COVID-19 hit in 2020 and resulted in school closings.

Speaking to media after her remarks on Thursday, Ms. Littlewood said a 2-per-cent increase in wages per year was “not respectful” of the work done by education staff.

“When you’re being attacked with cuts to education, with failure to meet cost of living increases ... we’re going to have to do what we can to protect public education,” she said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has signalled that the government wants to reach a “fair” deal and to avoid any disruptions to the school year. Ontario kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other province during waves of COVID-19. Educators, parents and policy makers have expressed concern about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students.

The government’s initial offer to support staff 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.

OSBCU asked for an increase of $3.25 an hour for all workers, or roughly 11.7 per cent annually. The union says that many support staff, who are among the lowest-paid in education, face food and housing insecurity or are forced to work multiple jobs.

Mr. Lecce’s office argued that if the union’s proposal was applied across the board, it would cost taxpayers $21.8-billion over the proposed three years. He has characterized the requests as “unreasonable.”

“What we sign with CUPE becomes the floor in every other education negotiation,” Mr. Lecce told reporters this week.

In a separate speech to members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, union president Karen Brown told delegates in Toronto on Thursday that she hopes the government would end its “divisive rhetoric” and pay education workers the wages they deserve.

ETFO initially denied media access to its annual meeting, a departure from past practices. The union then allowed media to attend Ms. Brown’s opening remarks on Monday but wouldn’t permit entrance to her closing speech on Thursday, saying it pertains to bargaining.

A spokeswoman e-mailed Ms. Brown’s closing remarks to media with some of the content redacted.

Ms. Brown told delegates on Thursday that “job action is, for ETFO, a last resort and it only happens with the approval of ETFO members. The federation’s priority is to reach fair teacher/occasional teacher and education worker central agreements that address ETFO members’ priorities and concerns.”

With a report from Dustin Cook

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