Ontario education workers relying on food banks, partner income to survive

Click to play video: 'CUPE education worker speaks out ahead of planned strike'
CUPE education worker speaks out ahead of planned strike
WATCH ABOVE: Many of the 55,000 Ontario education workers expected to walk off the job Friday make less than $40,000 a year. Brittany Rosen has more from one early childhood educator who is determined to be heard by the Ford government. – Nov 2, 2022

Chantal Newman works as an assistant for with children special needs at a school in Mississauga.

She also works at camps run by the YMCA. And she has a part-time job as a respite worker.

Despite her three jobs — including a position with the Peel District School Board — she has found herself relying on the Mississauga Food Bank to survive.

“When I think about Doug (Ford), he’s not helping us,” she told Global News. “It’s not even about contract, it is about the fact the wages don’t fit.”

Newman is a union member represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

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Workers with OPSEU walked off the job on Friday in solidarity with staff from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), who launched a protest after contract talks with the Ontario government ground to a halt.

Education support workers represented by the two unions are among the lowest paid in Ontario schools.

During its recent round of failed negotiations, CUPE estimated the average salary for its workers — a majority of whom are women — was $39,000 per year.

The union had asked for an increase of $3.25 per hour for every worker, an increase the government said amounted to more than 11 per cent per year. The province had offered an annual increase of less than three per cent.

Talks broke down on Thursday, with salary a key dividing line.

Click to play video: 'Unions band together to pressure Ontario government'
Unions band together to pressure Ontario government

Martina Woodley, a CUPE worker based in York Region, told Global News she relied on her partner’s income and had tried working multiple jobs to get by.

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“I think that 66 cents an hour is very disheartening — it makes me feel sad,” Woodley said of the government’s rejected proposal. “I don’t feel like I am paid for my worth.”

The mother of three university-age children said ahead of Friday’s labour action that striking was a last resort. She said it was worth it to make an important point to the government.

CUPE is set to return to negotiations with the province on Tuesday after two days of labour action and unprecedented back-to-work legislation.

The resumption of negotiations comes after a tumultuous week.

Monday and Friday saw workers walk off the job and several major unions begin plans for a general strike.

On Monday morning, the Ford government promised to repeal legislation that imposed a contract on CUPE workers and banned them from striking. In exchange, the union ended its labour action and both sides returned to the table.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Ford said the government had an “improved offer” for CUPE’s lowest paid employees.

As negotiators return to try and thrash out a new deal, Newman says that education support workers are undervalued for the role they perform.

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“It has nothing to do with people wanting money, it’s unfortunately we work because we need it,” she said.

“My other jobs — they’re the ones that feed me,” Newman added. “The job at the school is just my fixed costs.”

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