The union representing Ontario school support staff signalled on Monday that contract talks are going badly and said it will not rule out strike action in September – a move that could keep many schools closed for health and safety reasons, even if teachers stay on the job.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), whose 55,000 education workers include custodians and tradespeople, requested a conciliator on Monday.
The union would need to ask the conciliator for a "no board report" in order to be in strike position by September. Terri Preston, chair of the bargaining committee for CUPE's central talks with the Ministry of Education, said the union is not planning to request the report right away, but it hopes to force the province to set more bargaining dates than the two it has scheduled in August.
CUPE is well behind the teachers' unions in the progress of its talks. The two sides have only exchanged opening proposals so far, Ms. Preston said, and the next two bargaining dates are scheduled for late August.
"There's a level of frustration with the talks," she said. "There's a real perception that [the support workers'] bargaining is being seen as less important than others, even though we're all in the school boards together."
In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it is committed to setting bargaining dates as soon as possible with CUPE and the other unions.
In past labour disruptions by CUPE school staff, school closures were decided on a case-by-case basis at the board level, said ministry spokeswoman Nilani Logeswaran.
CUPE school workers also include educational assistants, special-education and literacy educators, school secretaries, administrative staff and most of the province's early childhood educators.
Chuck Hay, an executive superintendent at the Toronto District School Board, said in June that the board may need to close schools for health and safety reasons if CUPE staff stop working at any point.
The union leadership will meet at the end of August to review progress and decide whether to continue bargaining as planned or take other action, Ms. Preston said. Two more bargaining dates have been set in September.
The CUPE workers' contracts expired, along with the teachers' contracts, last August.
The union's negotiations with the province have gone less smoothly than the teachers' bargaining ever since. Under Ontario's new two-tier bargaining system, big financial items are discussed at a central table with the province and the association of school boards, while smaller items are discussed locally with each school board. Bargaining began by determining which issues should be addressed at which table, a process that took months for the teachers' unions.
However, CUPE and its negotiating partners could not agree on how to divide their talks, which sent the question to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. A ruling determined the division in late June. By that point, CUPE negotiators were hoping for a slew of bargaining dates over the summer to help make up for the delay, Ms. Preston said. "We've had two dates for bargaining and now nothing until the end of August again," she said. "So we were really surprised that that's all we were given."