Education minister condemns CUPE for 'unprecedented' strike escalation, says deal still within reach

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecee says his government can still strike a deal with CUPE education workers before a strike begins on Monday. However, doing so will require the union to back down from an "unprecedented" escalation in job action.

Most Ontario schools are set to close Monday if the strike goes ahead

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond he sees a 'credible pathway' to reaching a deal with CUPE. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says there's still hope for a last-minute deal with CUPE workers, who are set to walk off the job on Monday.

However, reaching an agreement will require the union to back down from what Lecce calls an "unprecedented" escalation in job action.

Lecce made the remarks to CBC Toronto host Dwight Drummond in a Friday interview just hours before negotiations were set to resume.

If the sides are unable to reach an agreement, most Ontario school boards say they'll be unable to open their schools on Monday. They have cited safety concerns due to the potential job action of some 55,000 education workers across the province.

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Dwight Drummond: We'll start right at the beginning. What are you going to do to try to prevent this disruption?

Stephen Lecce: I think for many families in Ontario, they have a sense of unease about where we're at. On Monday, CUPE made a decision after walking away from the table to impose a partial withdrawal of service. 

By Wednesday, they decided to ramp this up to a full-on strike, so it's regrettable we're in this situation that is being imposed on families. My mission is to avert a strike by getting a deal this weekend.

I just want families out there to know that we are focused on getting a deal that keeps their kids in class, and I need that spirit of cooperation, openness, that reasonableness that we've demonstrated to date to be matched by the other parties, particularly the union.

DD: Do you know what is happening in the schools? Do they need to close them on Monday?

SL: These decisions are being made by the school boards out of an abundance of caution. They're citing security, and I'm going to take them at their word. 

What I can say to boards and to families and to the trustees and the unions is that if all those entities sit down this weekend with an open mind and a willingness and a reasonableness, I think we can land a deal that averts a strike on Monday.

Stephen Lecce speaks with CBC Toronto host Dwight Drummond about the ongoing talks with CUPE education workers. If those negotiations aren't successful, 7:18

DD: CUPE says their main concern is service security. Cuts are something people expected from your government. But is it fair to those educational support staff, who say they already feel under-supported and underpaid?

SL: Overall within the ministry we've increased investments in education. We've materially improved and invested in education while updating our curriculum and going back to basics in mathematics. 

As we look at the whole system, we are investing in improving the student experience and ultimately to help young people get skills they can apply in the job market. 

Having said that, this is actually not about us. It's about the kids themselves, and what I'm trying to signal is on issues like absenteeism where we have an average of 15 days being utilized of sick days a year on average for CUPE members ...

DD: Are you accusing them of taking advantage of the system?

SL: No, I'm asserting that the numbers are disproportionately high. Higher than teachers in the same sector, higher than the private sector. 

My point is, we have a binary choice. We can choose to allow those dollars to continue to challenge the education system, and [former premier] Wynne and others have noted that that's been a perennial concern. 

And so I think it's a bipartisan consensus that we've got to try to improve the student experience to end the revolving door of staff coming through our schools.

DD: Do you think part of the reason we're not getting a deal is the combative stance that this government has with unions in general? Because it seems like the union is gearing up for a fight here.

SL: Yeah. And I regret that they are. I mean, we shouldn't be in this position. It's unprecedented to go from a partial withdrawal of service to a strike in two days. 

For context, in 2005, it took nine months. In 2015, it took somewhere around six weeks. This week it took 48 hours. It's curious. 

I think many people would like to understand why we're in this place, it's not a decision that's been imposed by government.

CUPE represents some 55,000 education workers, including clerical staff, custodians, educational assistants and early childhood educators. The union says they earn an average of $38,000 annually. (@joetigani/Twitter)

DD: Do you have any fears that people are playing politics here? We have a federal leaders' debate on the same day this could start. The election date is in a couple of weeks.

SL: I'm not sure I can opine on what's driving it. I think those are very curious points especially when you benchmark two days versus nine months, as has been historically the case. 

It is curious, but I think for me the bottom line is, I hope there's a sobriety of mind for all of us at the table this weekend so that we can get a deal for kids. I'm not sure parents care what's driving their decision.

DD: Are you optimistic that something can be reached by Monday?

SL: Honestly, there is a credible pathway to getting a deal. I actually believe that we were almost there last Sunday. So I think there is a pathway where we can avert this. It just requires the other parties particularly the union to come to the table with that reasonableness that we've demonstrated to date to allow us to have stability within within our classrooms in Ontario.

DD: Finally, the union says it would be a mistake if your government tried to legislate them back to work. But isn't that what you would have to do if it comes to that?

SL: I think the objective for me certainly for this weekend is to get a voluntary negotiated settlement. That has always been the best plan; that could be the win-win that all parties get.

 At the end of the day it's not about us, it's not about the unions, it's not about the trustees. It's about parents in Ontario, that their lives could be upended because of the circumstance imposed by this dramatic escalation by the union.

Before we talk about those options, I think it is only prudent to my responsibility to families to let them know that I've exhausted every option within our toolkit to get a negotiated settlement.

So that's the option I prefer; it's the option I'm already focused on achieving and I hope that the other parties would agree.


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