Schools across Ontario will open their doors Monday after the provincial government reached a tentative deal late Sunday with the union representing 55,000 support workers, averting a strike that would have sent thousands of families scrambling for alternative arrangements for their children.
The tentative agreement, which needs to be ratified by members, came after a marathon weekend bargaining session that Education Minister Stephen Lecce said “keeps kids in class.” The details of the agreement remain confidential until the result of the ratification vote.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents custodians, secretaries and educational-support workers, agreed to stop all job action, including a strike that would have shuttered many schools as of Monday, while awaiting ratification of the deal.
“This is welcome news for families, students, and workers alike, as schools remain open across our province,” Mr. Lecce said in a statement Sunday evening.
Talks resumed on Friday between CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which negotiates centrally on behalf of the union’s school-board employees, and the government and trustees’ association. A media blackout was imposed during weekend negotiations
Union president Laura Walton said that her team had secured a settlement that invests in “high-quality services for students,” while ensuring members have “secure jobs, decent benefits and paid leave when they’re sick or injured. It’s what our education workers deserve.”
The province’s education unions, including teachers, saw their contracts end Aug. 31 amid uncertainty over the decision by Premier Doug Ford’s government to increase class-size averages in some elementary grades and in high schools.
The tentative agreement comes after an announcement from CUPE last Wednesday that it had provided the requisite five-day strike notice, just two days into a work-to-rule campaign.
Soon after news of a potential strike last week, several boards, including the Toronto District School Board, the Peel District School Board and the York Region District School Board, told families that they would not be able to operate their schools safely and would have to close as of Monday. (The elementary- and high school teachers’ unions are not in a legal strike position.)
“All the parties worked hard together at the table to reach a fair and responsible agreement that will keep students in the classroom,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. "Education workers play an important role in our schools, and this agreement is a recognition that we value the contribution they make to the educational experience of our students every day.”
CUPE’s strike would have taken effect during the federal election campaign in which the Liberals have been hoping that Mr. Ford’s record in Ontario and the labour unrest in education would hurt Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
One of the main issues at the negotiating table was absenteeism.
The previous Liberal government reduced the union’s annual sick-day provisions. Teachers and other education workers, however, receive 11 sick days at full pay and 120 short-term leave days at 90 per cent of their pay.
Education workers, including teachers and other support staff, take an average of 15 days, a government spokeswoman said.
Another union, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which has said it would be transparent around bargaining, posted the government’s proposal on its website that looks to decrease the pay on short-term leave days to 60 per cent from 90 per cent.
The last time CUPE workers staged a job action – a work-to-rule campaign in 2015 – there were complaints about dirty hallways. Previous to that, CUPE education workers went on strike in Toronto in 2001, but were ordered back to work by legislators at the time.