Ontario’s education support workers could hit the picket lines on Nov 4., if three days of mediation don’t produce a contract.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 55,000 support workers, served the government a formal notice on Sunday that a “full withdrawal of services” will take place on Nov. 4 if the two sides can’t agree on a new contract.
CUPE will be in a legal strike position on Nov. 3.
The third-party mediator has scheduled two additional days of discussions, giving CUPE and the Ford government a total of three opportunities to hash out a new contract.
Read more: Mediated contract negotiations between government and CUPE break down ahead of strike deadline
“Those are really important dates. We want to make sure we’re using those three dates to best of our advantage, to make sure we’re at the table and talking and getting a real deal.”
Under provincial collective bargaining laws, the union is required to give employers five days of notice before walking off the job.
On Sunday morning, CUPE confirmed to Global News it had issued strike notice to the province.
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said the province is “not giving up on a deal that protects in-person learning for kids.”
“We are at the table with a fair offer that includes a pay raise and maintains the most generous pension and benefit package, but most importantly — it keeps kids in class,” Lecce said. “If CUPE moves ahead with strike action and disruption, we will act to keep students in class so they can continue to catch up.”
In an update after Lecce released his statement, the union said that Ministry of Education representatives had “reached out to us to facilitate a meeting this afternoon.”
“We welcome any opportunity for fulsome discussion that will move these negotiations forward,” the update said.
On Oct. 3, more than 43,000 of CUPE’s 55,000 members took part in a vote on strike action – 96.5 per cent voted in favour.
Even with a date set, Walton said the union and its members do not want to walk off the job.
“We’re here to get a negotiated agreement that responds to the needs of students and frontline workers,” Walton said. “No one wants to strike, least of all the lowest-paid education workers who can barely pay our bills. Still, we need a significant wage increase and we deserve it.”
Negotiations have been stalled, with the government and CUPE proposing very different options.
The union has requested an 11 per cent increase in wages, citing the high cost of living and historically low pay. CUPE said its wage proposal is an increase of $3.25 per hour annually for the next three years.
The Ministry of Education countered with a 2 per cent increase for employees earning less than $40,000 a year, and a 1.25 per cent increase for union members who make more than $40,000.
Union members have been strategizing picketing positions, while creating picket signs, leaflets and learning activities for the children of education workers who would be on the picket lines alongside their parents.
Walton, meanwhile, has been travelling across the province getting member feedback on strike strategies — should mediated talks break down.
Lecce said the union has “all but confirmed they will strike” and indicated the province has plans to bring a quick end to any job action.
“While this union puts their own interests ahead of kids, we will ensure Ontario students remain in class,” Lecce said in a statement without providing any detail on how school would not be interrupted.
Chandra Pasma, the Ontario NPD’s education critic, blamed the potential strike on Lecce and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“Education workers deserve a decent wage, and our children deserve a government that invests in ensuring there are enough caring adults in their schools,” she said. “Ford and Lecce must offer a fair deal to stop disruption to our kids’ school year.”
While a strike isn’t a guarantee, the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic School Board said last week a full withdrawal of service by education workers would mean they could not offer safe conditions for staff and students
Read more: Peterborough public, Catholic schools to close if CUPE education workers strike, withdraw services
For the schools that remain open in the event of a strike, Walton said members would focus on information pickets rather than preventing families from accessing the school setting.
“We are not there to slow parents up from getting their child into daycare, we have no desire to do anything like that,” Walton said.
Meanwhile, Walton has had “preliminary conversations” with other education sector unions about what would happen in the event of a strike.
While it’s unclear whether teachers would cross the picket lines, Walton said CUPE’s clear expectation is other union members wouldn’t perform the work of striking employees.