Government, union return to negotiations after brief labour disruption

November 10, 2022   ·   0 Comments


Students at Upper Grand District schools began the week certain they’d be learning online again at some point.

The school board had informed parents of plans to have secondary students learning by way of online classrooms by Tuesday with elementary school students doing the same by Wednesday.

And it seemed to be a sure thing as both the provincial government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) facet that represents schools’ secretaries, clerks, computer technicians, custodial and maintenance staff, and educational assistants had their heels dug in to hold their respective positions.

“All along, we made a promise to do whatever it takes to keep kids in class,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce. “We will keep that promise.”

But then Premier Doug Ford offered during a press conference Monday to start the wheels going toward repealing Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act. That’s the legislation that was designed and passed the previous week to make the labour disruption illegal.

“For the sake of Ontario’s two million students, to keep classrooms open, they’ve left us with no choice but to pass the Keeping Students in Class Act,” Lecce had said the previous week.

“It’s disappointing that we got here. All along we had hoped to reach an agreement that’s right for students, right for parents, right for workers and right for taxpayers. But CUPE wouldn’t budge. They refused to take a strike off the table.”

One of the more irksome points of contention was that the government used Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, called the Notwithstanding Clause, in the new legislation. CUPE members walked off the job Nov. 4 in protest of the use of Section 33.

Workers represented by CUPE 256, the union for custodial and maintenance staff across the Upper Grand District School Board, were out protesting in front of Dufferin–Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones’ office on Nov. 4 and 7.

CUPE 256 vice president Mike Bentley spoke with the Citizen at the local protest on Nov. 4 and said the province’s use of the Notwithstanding Clause to protect the government from constitutional challenges when declaring their strike illegal has sent a chill through other unions who negotiate with the government.

“This is bigger than just the school boards, this is all of Ontario, this is union, labour forces all throughout Canada,” he said. “Everyone’s watching this.”

Bentley added that CUPE is happy to go back to the table and negotiate to resolve the outstanding issues concerning their contracts, and that started to take place on Tuesday when negotiations resumed. 

The caveat to the premier’s offer to return to the negotiating table was that Bill 28 would be scrapped if CUPE tore down their picket lines as a sign of good faith. 

Many school boards throughout the province had already returned their students to learning by way of online classroom platforms (Google Classroom, Brightspace, Seesaw). It harkened back to the early shut-down days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, the union’s wage proposal was an increase of $3.25 per hour each year in a three-year collective agreement. The government offered 2.5 per cent wage increases for workers who earn less than $43,000 a year and an increase of 1.5 per cent for people who earn more.

Bentley noted that over the last 10 years, the workers he represents have seen one per cent pay raises or pay freezes, adding up to 8 per cent, while inflation has climbed up to almost 20 per cent.    

The wages are currently being renegotiated between CUPE and the provincial government. 

“We’re willing to make a fair deal,” the premier said. “One that offers more help for lower-income workers. We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents, and fair for taxpayers.

“We know we can get there.”

He said a deal with CUPE has impacts on broader public service salaries as well as the government’s ability to invest in services.

“These are complex discussions, especially given the economic climate we’re in,” Ford said. “Record high inflation, economic uncertainty, cost of living challenges that every family is facing.”

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