The dispute between Ontario's government and education workers, explained

Education assistants, early childhood educators and custodians are among the workers seeking an 11.7 per cent pay raise. It's much higher than most Canadians will get this year — but labour experts say there's important context behind the number.

CUPE says workers want 11.7% pay raise — far more than most Canadians will get this year

Empty desks and chairs are spaced out in a bright classroom.
An empty classroom in Toronto in September 2020. Some Ontario schools closed to in-person learning after education workers walked off the job Friday. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press)

After contract talks between Ontario's government and thousands of education workers devolved into a legal battle, labour experts are split over whether the workers' big pay raise request is reasonable — and whether the public will be on their side.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is asking for an 11.7 per cent annual raise for 55,000 workers, including education assistants, early childhood educators, custodians and administrative assistants.

The pay hike request may appear staggering to many Canadian workers, who won't get a raise anywhere near that scale this year, even with inflation at about seven per cent.

But labour economists who spoke with CBC News say there's a deeper context behind the education workers' pay hike demand — including a decade of frozen wages that CUPE says has left the workers struggling to afford to live.

Here's a look at where the dispute stands and how the workers' pay raise request stacks up.

What's the latest?

The education workers called off their job action Monday after the provincial government promised to repeal legislation that it rushed through last week to impose a contract on the workers to ban them striking. The two sides say they will resume contract negotiations.

The decision to end the walkout means students will be back in classrooms Tuesday.

CUPE and the provincial government are still awaiting a ruling from the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) about the legality of the job action, which began Friday.

The Ontario government's controversial law includes the power to fine each worker $4,000 for every day they strike. The government also said it would use the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to avert any constitutional challenges to the legislation. A government spokesperson said Monday that new legislation to repeal the law would be brought to the legislature on Nov. 14.

What do the education workers want?

The education workers are asking Ontario's government for an 11.7 per cent annual raise, as well as overtime at twice the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and early childhood educators, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn is shown in Toronto on Monday. The union represents 55,000 education workers who are seeking an 11.7 per cent annual pay increase. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

CUPE says the workers earn, on average, about $40,000 a year. An 11.7 per cent raise would give them $3.25 extra an hour, or about $4,800 extra per year (based on being paid for 35 hours per week for 43 weeks each year).

The Progressive Conservative government's final offer was a 2.5 per cent annual raise to workers making less than $43,000, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more, either of which would mean a raise of about $1,000 per year.

What's behind the 11.7 per cent figure?

Although CUPE is asking for a much higher pay raise than most workers, or even other unions, are seeking this year, it says it's trying to make up for years of stagnant pay.

From 2012 to 2021, the education workers' wages increased about 8.5 per cent. Over the same period, inflation in Ontario rose 17.8 per cent, meaning the workers essentially took a massive pay cut over that period.

"We should try and avoid the sticker shock of the [11.7 per cent] number," said Charles Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon who researches labour history and unions.

"CUPE workers in the education sector have had, essentially, wage freezes for over a decade and haven't seen a significant cost-of-living increase."

How does it compare to other workers' raises?

Other unionized workers have settled for far less this year.

In Ontario, the average annual wage increase in settlements ratified so far this year is 2.6 per cent, above the national average of 1.8 per cent, according to provincial and federal government data.

WATCH | Ford threatens to use notwithstanding clause: 

Ontario plans to use notwithstanding clause to stop education strike

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
As Ontario parents brace for an education worker walkout on Friday, closing many schools, constitutional experts are raising concerns over the provincial government's plan to use the notwithstanding clause to pass anti-strike legislation.

Given those figures, CUPE's pay ask may rub other Canadians the wrong way — and even pit them against the education workers.

"[It] might not be palatable to unionized workers, [and] you would hear from scores of thousands of private-sphere workers that are not only not getting a raise, but they are either suffering from downsizing in their jobs, layoffs, terminations and, certainly, salary freezes," said Toronto employment lawyer Sunira Chaudhri.

"I think that's exactly where the Ford government is going to get some support."

It's unclear what level of support the workers might have from parents, who want their children to stay in class after two years of COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

Labour studies expert Paul Christopher Gray suggests other workers should try to maintain some empathy for the protesting Ontario education workers.

"I would say: Look at how low the wage is; look at the broader context of what is in effect real wage cuts over the last decade that these workers have experienced; look at the increase in inflation and see how modest, actually, the demand they're making is," said Gray, an assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

"And instead of 'why them,' ask 'why not me as well.'"

Is there any middle ground?

Bruce Ally, a mediator and arbitrator in Toronto, points out that unions always head to the negotiating table "asking for the stars" but are prepared to meet in the middle. He said CUPE's 11.7 per cent request would have been no different.

"We need to look at the justification, and is it realistic or not?" he said. "What are other people getting paid doing the same job? What are other provinces doing? What's the cost of living? How does that impact the salary earned?"

It's unclear whether the two sides will be able to negotiate a deal or if the dispute will be decided in court.

A sign in front of Brock Public School in Toronto on Tuesday morning shows support for education workers. Labour experts are divided over whether there will be public support for the workers' pay raise request. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)


Laura McQuillan is an online journalist with CBC News in Toronto. She covers general news, social issues and science and has a special interest in finding unexpected answers to unusual questions. Laura previously reported from New Zealand and Brazil.

With files from The Canadian Press