Toronto

Ontario education workers to resume talks with province, school boards on Friday

Some 55,000 education workers in Ontario are set to walk off the job Monday after their union said contract talks have stalled with seemingly little hope of reaching a deal.

But CUPE says it will strike on Monday if there’s no deal by then

Education workers have been in a work-to-rule situation since Monday. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Contract talks between the province, school boards and educational support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees will resume on Friday, the union says.

CUPE, which represents some 55,000 education workers in Ontario, said in a news release on Wednesday night that it will strike on Monday if there's no deal by then.

Talks are scheduled to begin on Friday at 4:30 p.m.

Earlier on Wednesday, CUPE announced its intention to escalate its current job action to a full-on strike on Monday, but also invited the province and Council of Trustees' Associations back to the bargaining table.

It also offered to bargain throughout the weekend to avoid labour disruption.

"We all know that the best outcome for everyone — students, parents, families, workers — is for this dispute to be resolved at the bargaining table," Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario Council of School Board Unions, said in a news release.

"We're ready to do the hard work to get there, but we need the province and school boards to be equally committed to a deal, rather than a strike. If we have to, we will be ready to walk out on Monday morning, but our focus this weekend will be on the hard work needed to achieve a settlement."

Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said education workers would walk off the job Monday if a deal can't be reached. (CBC)

The announcement on Wednesday morning prompted some Ontario school boards to warn parents about possible school closures.

Walton said the union is prepared to do "the hard work" to avoid such a walkout.

"Make no mistake — CUPE members are prepared to go on strike. We are ready," Walton said. "We are ready to do the hard work to prevent this action."

Support staff, including clerical staff, custodians, educational assistants, early childhood educators and more from 63 school boards in the province, began a work-to-rule campaign on Monday after last-minute, weekend contract talks failed to produce a deal.

Since Monday, Walton said, it has become clear to the union that job action is affecting services in schools.

"Across the province, boards are cutting more services and putting students at greater risk," Walton said. "This is not safe and this is not sustainable. We have no choice but to invoke the next step in the legal progress we follow for school board bargaining."

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he thought all parties were fairly close to a deal when talks broke off Sunday. He said the province has 'provided some latitude' on issues such as job security and compensation, but also acknowledged sick days and extended leaves remain a sticking point. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Early Wednesday afternoon, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he thought all parties were fairly close to a deal when talks broke off Sunday. He said the province has "provided some latitude" on issues such as job security and compensation, but also acknowledged sick days and extended leaves remain a sticking point.

"I think we've demonstrated some reasonableness at the table," Lecce told reporters at Queen's Park.

Lecce cited retention of educational assistants as a priority, and said the government's actions through the current bargaining process have reflected that with offers of steady pay increases. 

Walton acknowledged the province views worker absenteeism and use of sick days as a sticking point in the talks, and said the union is prepared to talk about the issues that lead to sick calls: high class sizes, classroom violence and excessive workloads, for example. 

Education workers among lowest paid in system, union says

CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn also noted at Wednesday's CUPE news conference that the education workers are among the lowest paid in the public education system, making an average of $38,000 per year. 

As the union representatives did, Lecce expressed a willingness to resume talks and said negotiators for the province are ready to meet as early as today.

"I remain cautiously optimistic" a deal can be reached before a full-scale walkout, he said.

School boards are already sending notices to parents warning of a potential strike.

The Waterloo Catholic District School Board has said that it will close its schools on Monday if the strike goes ahead.

"As CUPE represents 1,100 of our school-based staff, we would not be able to safely operate our schools," said the board in a statement on its website.

The York Region District School Board, just north of Toronto, is "strongly" encouraging parents to make child care arrangements.

"This strike action may result in school closures," said a notice from the board posted online. The Peel District School Board, just to the west of the city, issued a similar notice Wednesday.

'What we want here is pressure'

CUPE is just one of the unions locked in talks with Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government.

So far, none has been able to reach a deal, raising concern that a widespread school strike could happen.

Hahn said that should a full walkout occur on Monday, CUPE hopes teachers would opt not to cross the picket lines.

"That would be ideal," Hahn said. "What we want here is pressure to resolve these issues."

While the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said it stands in solidarity with CUPE education workers, president Sam Hammond did not call on members to join the strike.

Instead, he encouraged Ontario's elementary teachers to join the picket lines before and after the school day.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association also said it "fully supports" CUPE education workers, but that it expects members to continue working in the case of a strike.

Hahn was also asked about whether a strike would impact voting in the upcoming federal election, with hundreds of schools slated to serve as polling stations.

Hahn said Elections Canada will "have to deal with that," but added that CUPE members "won't impede the democratic process."

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