Ontario’s Education Workers Are Heading Back to the Picket Line

Less than two weeks ago, Ontario education workers ended a strike and came to the table to negotiate with the province. Now, in a fight not just for wages but for classroom conditions, 50,000 workers are set to strike again on Monday if a new deal is not reached.

Laura Walton of CUPE-OSBCU and other Canadian union leaders gather for a press conference after Premier Doug Ford offered to back down in return for CUPE calling off its strike ahead of the Canadian unions calling for escalated strike action. Toronto, November 7, 2022. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In the wake of a strike earlier this month, Ontario’s right-wing government is pressing on with its fight to maintain low staff levels in the education sector. As a result, the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) school board council has issued yet another strike notice.

According to reports, talks broke down because the government refused to extend hours and coverage for the province’s Early Childhood Educators (ECEs), Educational Assistants, and custodians. The labor actions were never simply about pay. Classroom conditions are also of paramount concern for education workers, for both themselves and for students. Because the government also refuses to protect these workers from the periodic threat of mass layoffs, the fight has been rekindled. On Monday, if a new deal is not reached by Sunday at 5:00 p.m., fifty thousand workers are set to walk off the job.

Service Questions

On November 16, after months of threats, cuts, and direct attacks by the Ford government, CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) issued its mandatory five-day strike notice. At issue, this time, is the government’s resistance to increasing staffing levels — after nearly four years of “one-time” funding to fill the gap — and ensuring that hours aren’t cut.

As PressProgress notes, the government refused language indicating that it is willing to boost hours for ECEs, or to ensure that they are present in all kindergarten classes. At the moment, schools can avoid hiring them if classes have fewer than sixteen students. Similar proposals to ensure all custodians are hired for forty-hour weeks were similarly rejected.

“A wage increase doesn’t help if you’re going to lose your job,” OSBCU president Laura Walton says. “A wage increase isn’t going to help when you have school boards that are finding ways to get rid of people. A wage increase isn’t going to help if your hours get cut.”

The Ford government has also refused to permanently reinstate the hundreds of jobs it threatened to cut in 2019. After proposing to eliminate six thousand frontline jobs, the government backtracked. It has since salvaged many of these jobs with time-limited funds to quell possible strike action — specifically the Supports For Students Fund and the Education Worker Protection Fund. The former secured work for 1,000 to 1,200 CUPE education workers and the latter for roughly three hundred, but only for the life of the union’s 2019–22 agreement.

Then, ahead of the 2022 election, school boards across the province quietly informed their education workers that hundreds of jobs were set for expiry and their future would be subject to bargaining.

“Education workers deserve to know that not only will they be paid a fair wage but that their job will treat them with dignity and respect. That means increasing the number of hours our workers spend in front of students,” Walton told PressProgress. “That wouldn’t just lead to more job security for education workers, it would mean service security for students. It would make sure parents could count on the resources their children need in the classroom.”

Those Sad, Thirty-Three-Year-Old Kids

In response to the strike notice, Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce immediately denied that staffing was a central issue at the table. He then falsely claimed that the government was actually committed to expanding hiring. In a bizarre twitter thread, reflecting on the bargaining process, Lecce falsely claimed his government is “invest[ing] more in student services” than ever before, and revised his account of the process.

At the end of his Twitter rumination, Lecce decided to speak for the province’s primary and secondary school students — or at least some of them.

“Kids have endured enough of these strikes,” wrote the privately educated minister. “2,246 days out of class to be precise, since 1989.”

While the Ford government may not be distinguished by its selective use of polls alone, one struggles to think of another government opting to rationalize its policy choices by polling those thirty-three-year-old kids who have borne the full, collective brunt of education workers’ labor actions since 1989.

One might sincerely pity these thirty-three-year-olds. Being set back by over six years of labor disruptions is, no doubt, distressing. One can presumably add these “kids” to the list of those most vocally angered by Ontario’s education workers — alongside personal friends of Stephen Lecce, prominent donors to Stephen Lecce’s party, and the spouse of the party’s former leader.

Unfortunately for Lecce’s “kid” contacts, polls of Ontarians who follow the ordinary Ontario curriculum indicate that the public overwhelmingly blames the government for the dispute.

The Anchor and the Fiscal Cliff

The backdrop to the government’s refusal to make these vital education support jobs permanent includes spending projections that point to a $6 billion shortfall for the school system by 2027. This, according to Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office, will need to be addressed either “by allocating more funding to the ministry or by introducing measures that will lower program costs.”

The Ford government’s past behavior suggests that cuts will be its most likely recourse. Just last year, before its budget was announced, as it plotted to cut its temporary COVID-19 funds, the government ordered school boards to prepare for thousands of “redundancies.” When asked about it, the government blamed education workers for complaining.

In its first offer to CUPE, the Ford government was unabashed about its desire to rein in education spending:

These uncertainties combined with the highest debt of any subnational jurisdiction in the world are the key factors for consideration regarding sustainability of labor agreements, not revenue alone as suggested by CUPE/OSBCU. Between 2019-20 and 2022-23, for every additional dollar in revenue, the government spends $1.37. This is going to support health care, education, pandemic recovery, and economic growth. While the Crown and CTA are committed to a fair deal, it must not compromise the fiscal sustainability of the publicly funded education system.

Premeditated Attacks

This latest attack on job security from the Ford government is part of an ongoing pattern. At the start of talks, the government strongly hinted that it would introduce legislation to crush the union if it fought back. No reasonable person could see any other way, at the initial offer proposed, to both impose wage and benefit cuts onto workers, and to “keep kids in class.”

In September, Ford boasted that he would not “roll over” and “give the unions what they want.” Lecce, meanwhile, warned “Education unions need to get on board with keeping kids in class without disruption.” Later, Lecce insisted that his threats were meant “philosophically” — even as Ford threatened “There’s only so long my patience can last with the head of the unions.”

Overall, the message was the same. From the start, this government has pushed cuts and precarity. Facing resistance from workers, the government has doubled down again and again — threatening to do all it can to reach the endgame of depriving labor of its constitutional right to strike.

The union has charged that the minister was in the process of drafting the draconian Bill 28 well before the union’s strike deadline. The bill is oddly comprehensive. It contains a full, revised contract and clauses overriding human rights law, constitutional protections, and more, in anticipation of all legal methods of recourse.

While it is hard to know when the bill was prepared, it is clear that the government had hoped to make an example of CUPE. If the thoroughness of the bill was preplanned, more was at stake than just the first-round education contract talks — CUPE’s fifty-five thousand education workers are also the school board component of Canada’s largest union, representing nonprofessionals in many cases. Managing these workers’ expectations downward would, for this government, have a clear multiplier effect.

Across the public sector, these aims were laid out quietly in the government’s line-by-line “spending review”—A Modernization Action Plan for Ontario by Ernst & Young (EY). “This is an opportunity,” the EY review promised.

The fifty-page report suggested that the Ford government should centralize collective bargaining across the broader public sector — “including transfer payment recipients” — to “control” compensation and impose an “agile workforce dynamic” on the workforce more generally.

It suggested replacing, wherever possible, full-time, permanent staff with more-precarious hires. And, finally, it advised the Ford government to find ways to expand existing privatization schemes — “imposing competitive pressure on public sector providers” by “expanding market activity and discipline.”

If the Ford government’s actions were all in-line with the EY spending review, breaking CUPE is the first step to breaking the labor movement more generally. But CUPE’s first round of strikes put sand in the gear of this plan. And the forthcoming strike will hopefully lay it to rest permanently.