TORONTO – Reaching a deal with education workers that put a cap on wage increases was a “significant success” for the Ontario government, the province’s education minister said Monday.
Stephen Lecce said the tentative agreement with Ontario’s 55,000 education workers, which averted a strike that would have seen most of the province’s schools closed this week, lines up with government legislation to cap all annual public sector wage increases at one per cent.
“I think we were able to land this deal within our mandate,” Lecce said in an interview. “That is a significant success for the government when it comes to ensuring that we’re putting new dollars in the system.”
Under the tentative agreement, which must be ratified by the members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, workers will receive a one per cent wage increase each year over the life of the three-year deal.
In 2017, when CUPE signed a contract extension with the previous Liberal government, workers received a four per cent raise over the two-year agreement.
The Progressive Conservative government’s wage cap legislation, which was introduced in June and has yet to pass, sparked anger from major unions who warned it could derail ongoing contract negotiations, trigger protests and lead to a court challenge.
On Monday, Lecce described the agreement with CUPE as a “win-win-win”, adding that the Tory government was able to secure a key provision that addresses worker absenteeism, which the school boards claim is rising.
The tentative deal creates a standardized medical form workers must use if they want to access days through their short-term disability plan.
The president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions said she would have liked to have achieved a higher wage increase for workers but noted the union was able to secure the restoration of key government grants that will bring back between 1,300 to 1,500 jobs.
“That would be the one area I wish we could have got more,” Walton said of the wage cap. “We chose to take the fight on for sick leave and take the fight on for job security.”
The deal restores $58.3 million in government funding that is used largely for education assistants working with students with special needs. An additional $20 million will be added to that fund and will help restore jobs for clerical workers and custodians cut.
The union was also able to negotiate an annual $600,000 fund to pay janitors who work after-hours when community groups run events in schools.
“This (deal) builds a foundation on which we can start moving forward,” Walton said.
The agreement comes as contract talks between the province and the unions representing both high school and elementary school teachers continue.
The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said the government has also introduced the wage-cap proposal in talks with that union.
“It’s something they’ve put on the table and it’s not a proposal that is particularly interesting to us,” Harvey Bischof said, adding that the teachers have asked for an approximate two per cent “cost-of-living adjustment”.
Earlier this year, the government ordered school boards to start increasing class sizes, moving to an average for high school from 22 to 28 students over four years. Class sizes for grades 4 to 8 will increase by one student per classroom, from 23 to 24. Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer has said the move would see 10,000 fewer teachers in the public school system over the next five years.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Monday the government needs to learn from the CUPE talks and reverse cuts made to schools ahead of the remaining contract talks.
“Reverse the cuts,” she said. “Let’s not go through this again and put kids at risk and schools in chaos going down the road. Let’s fix this now. Admit the cuts were the wrong thing to do.”
– With files from Allison Jones.