TORONTO – Tens of thousands of education workers across the province began a work-to-rule campaign on Monday as confusion mounted about when their union and the government would return to the bargaining table.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said CUPE, which represents 55,000 custodians, clerical workers and early childhood educators, had accepted a government offer of new mediation dates and talks could resume as early as this week.
“I’m grateful for the union accepting those days,” he told a morning news conference at a school in Nobleton, Ont. “I hope that that can be a legitimate, bona fide, constructive dialogue that actually leads to a deal.”
But hours later, the president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, refuted Lecce’s statement, saying no dates were offered and that the parties remained too far apart to return to the table.
“There’s a clear disconnect between what we hear from the minister and what we hear at the table and this would be another really good example of that,” Laura Walton said.
During the work-to-rule campaign, education workers will stop working overtime and won’t perform extra duties. For custodians, that includes not cleaning hallways, office areas or gymnasiums, cutting school lawns or picking up or emptying garbage cans outside of schools. Clerical workers are not to replace paper or perform photocopier repairs, find replacements for absent staff or administer any medications.
Education assistants are not to prepare materials for any class, complete student attendance or allow class to start without a teacher present, and information technology staff are not to perform repairs of any kind.
Walton said the union is willing to return to talks if there is a prospect of meaningful progress.
“I think we’ve got a bit to work on in order to get there,” she said.
WATCH: Will education workers strike this year? (Sept. 4, 2019)
Contracts for Ontario’s public school teachers and education workers expired Aug. 31, and the major unions are in various stages of bargaining. The talks are happening as the government has ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 over four years. Class sizes for grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24.
The government has said that will mean 3,475 fewer teachers in the system over four years, which will be accomplished by not filling vacancies when teachers quit or retire. Walton has said those cuts trickle down and impact educational assistant supports and custodial services as well.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the work-to-rule campaign didn’t need to happen and blamed Premier Doug Ford’s government for not doing enough to avert the job action.
“Nobody in this situation wants students to suffer,” she said. “But, unfortunately, here we are in this situation. It really makes clear once again that the cuts that this government is making are impacting students.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Ford government’s education cuts will put more pressure on support staff, who are some of the lowest paid employees in the education system.
“They deserve support,” Schreiner said in a statement. “I urge the Ford government to focus on improving education during negotiations instead of pinching pennies. ”