'Absolutely not': Custodian says work-to-rule action won't jeopardize student safety

A custodian with the Peel District School Board says the work-to-rule campaign by some 55,000 education workers in Ontario that starts Monday won’t put student safety at risk.

All sides bargained through the weekend, but failed to reach a deal

Peel District School Board custodian Jason McFarlane said the job action by support workers will show people how much they do for the education system. (CBC)

A custodian with the Peel District School Board says the work-to-rule campaign by some 55,000 education workers in Ontario that starts Monday won't put student safety at risk.

Support staff, including clerical staff, custodians, educational assistants, early childhood educators and more from 63 school boards in the province, will take part in the job action after last-minute contract talks over the weekend failed to produce a deal.

CUPE, the union representing the workers, and the province and the Council of Trustees' Associations tried to hammer out a deal, but to no avail.

Custodian Jason McFarlane denied the job action would jeopardize student safety when asked directly during an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"Absolutely not. CUPE education workers take their job and their role very, very seriously and we would never do anything to jeopardize student safety," McFarlane said.

Rather, he hopes the job action shines a spotlight on how integral support workers are to the education system.

"Maybe when we talk about schools we think teacher and teaching and that's it," he said. "And it takes a lot of background work to make those buildings operate and those students successful."

Custodians do more than clean, he noted. When he starts his day, "usually in the dark," he said, he ensures the school's fire alarm system is working, that lifesaving devices in the building are operational, he flushes the water system to ensure it's safe and checks the grounds, among other tasks.

He's even been known to help a student find a lost tooth.

Despite all this, he said, "I don't think [the job action is] going to make an effect that the students will even notice."

'Deeply disappointing'

On Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said bargaining could resume later this week and he is optimistic that a deal can be secured.

CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions said Monday the province has yet to suggest further bargaining dates, and said it would only return to talks if there is a prospect of "meaningful progress."

On Sunday, Lecce said the government and the Council of Trustees Associations will continue to negotiate in good faith, and said he has asked for additional bargaining dates "to bring everyone back to the table."

He also said the government and employers tabled a reasonable offer and expanded that offer through the negotiations.

"It is deeply disappointing that CUPE has decided to end talks this weekend, and proceed with a partial withdrawal of services, despite a limited number of outstanding items at the table," Lecce said Sunday.

"We have offered proposals to address compensation, job security and funding for additional staffing," he added. "A key issue that remains is resolving rising absenteeism rates, and the impact that has on students and schools."

Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, told CBC News on Sunday that those proposals aren't enough. The union walked away from the table because the sides are just too far apart, Walton said, adding that the job action won't put student safety at risk. 

"When you're not able to provide language that ensures that boards do not have unlimited power to cut jobs, then we have a problem. Now it becomes just a stopgap measure instead of addressing the real need, which is minimum standards of services within our schools."

Province seeking more bargaining dates

The Toronto District School Board says that while principals and vice-principals will have a heavier workload, things will continue as normal for now.

"We don't think that students will see or notice a big difference right off the bat. As the partial withdrawal of services continues though, it may have a more significant impact on school activities, permits, and operations," said spokesperson Ryan Bird. 

Last week CUPE, which has been demanding a better deal for its members — who earn an average of $38,000 per year — formally submitted notice, putting it in a legal strike position as of Monday, Sept. 30.

CUPE is just one of the unions that has been locked in talks with Doug Ford's PC government.

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

With files from Desmond Brown, Shanifa Nasser and The Canadian Press


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