Why these Ontario educational assistants believe they deserve a raise and will strike if they don't get it

Educational assistants (EAs) say they're prepared to strike if the Ontario government isn't willing to give them a big pay boost in this current round of negotiations. They're among the 55,000 school workers who've voted 96.5 per cent in favour of a strike.

Union for education workers, who voted 96.5% in favour of strike, back at bargaining table today

Melissa Reis, left, is an educational assistant at Forest Park Public School in St. Thomas, while Sherrie-Lee Price is an EA at Clarke Road Secondary School in London. Ontario education workers' contract expired Aug. 31. (Submitted )

Educational assistants (EAs) say they're prepared to strike if the Ontario government isn't willing to give them a big pay boost in this current round of negotiations.

"Many of my co-workers have second jobs," said Sherrie-Lee Price, an EA at Clarke Road Secondary School in London, Ont. "If we don't get a fair deal this time, I'm going to be looking for a second job as well."

EAs are among the 55,000 Ontario school workers with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) who this week voted 96.5 per cent in favour of a strike. Other workers include library and office staff, early childhood educators and custodians. All Ontario education contracts expired Aug. 31.

Kids are missing out because we can't keep staff and we can't keep staff because we're not being compensated fairly.- Sherrie-Lee Price, educational assistant in London, Ont.

On average, Ontario's front-line education workers make $39,000 a year.

The union returned to the bargaining table with the province on Thursday.

"We're more frequently short staffed and doing the job of two or three people in a day," said Price, who has worked as an EA for 14 years. "I've seen the escalation of behaviours and violence go up in the classroom with less support in place."

Price has worked as an EA for 14 years. (Submitted by Sherrie-Lee Price)

CUPE is asking the government for a $3.25 hourly wage increase for all workers. 

"Within 10 years, we have fallen behind the living wage," said Price.

The government has offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, while CUPE is looking for annual increases of 11.7 per cent.

"As CUPE moves ahead towards a strike that hurts kids and disrupts families — leaving behind a reasonable offer that also protects the most generous benefits and pension plan in the country — we will continue to remain at the table to make sure kids stay in class without interruption right through to June," Lecce said this week in a statement to CBC Toronto.

The union has said the government's offer amounts to an extra $800 a year for the average worker.

"Education workers in Ontario have had their pay capped for the better part of a decade, so given inflation, that amounts to an 11 per cent cut over the last 10 years." Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University, told CBC News this week.

"So really, this round of bargaining is a catch-up round."

The government has noted CUPE is also asking for five additional paid days before the start of the school year, 30 minutes of paid preparation time each day, and increasing overtime pay from a multiplier of 1.5 to 2.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, shown in a file photo, says the province 'will continue to remain at the table to make sure kids stay in class without interruption right through to June.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), the fourth largest public school board in Ontario, has a total of 1,030 EAs and early childhood educators (ECEs). The TVDSB encompasses Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford Counties and the City of London.

In an emailed statement to CBC London on Thursday, Andrew Canham, the TVDSB's superintendent for special education, said EAs and ECEs "are valuable members of our school teams, and play a vital role in supporting equitable and inclusive classrooms and school environments that are responsive to student strengths, needs and overall well-being."

"These members of our school teams play a critical role in supporting our students directly with varying abilities and support teachers in so many ways, such as helping students stay focused and engaged while meeting the individual needs of each of our learners."

The statement also said EAs and ECEs "have a meaningful impact on learning outcomes within our schools."

EAs face more complex needs, staff shortages

EAs help students with everything from personal hygiene, to feeding and physiotherapy. They're also responsible for helping teachers when a student is disrupting the rest of the class.

"Sometimes I'm helping students who are in crisis," said Price. "I'm asked to go into classrooms that are in crisis and help their staff because they're short staffed.

"We have to make the choices between helping the student with personal care or lunch, or doing their physio," she said.

"EAs are getting injured multiple times throughout the day, getting bit, hit, pinched, spit on, punched, things thrown at them multiple times throughout the day," said Melissa Reis, an EA at Forest Park Public School in St. Thomas.

Reis has been an EA for 16 years and said she doesn't want to strike.

"I want to be in class. I want to be with my students. They bring me joy, but unfortunately that joy doesn't fill up my bank account or pay my bills."

Before a strike could happen, the union would have to ask the conciliator to issue a "no board" report, meaning a deal can't be reached. Once that report is issued, the union would be in a legal strike position 17 days later, and it has to give five days' notice of any job action.

EAs are the lowest paid education workers in the province and voted in favour of striking if negotiations with the government fall apart. London Morning spoke with two local EAs, Melissa Reis and Sherrie-Lee Price, to hear more about the job.


Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at or follow @rebeccazandberg on Twitter.