Nearly 200 protesters gathered Saturday outside the Ontario PC convention in Toronto in a show of support for education workers.
The rally comes days after contract negotiations between the Ford government and CUPE, the union representing about 55,000 education workers, broke down.
“We know they’re talking about what their next policy decisions will be,” said Laura Walton, the president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions.
“But at the end of the day, a strike can be avoided. It means coming to the table with a real deal that respects workers and respects families.”
CUPE, which represents workers such as educational assistants, custodians and librarians, said the mediator helping with negotiations this week concluded the two sides were too far apart and talks should be postponed.
The parties are set to return to the table on November 1 for an undetermined period of time.
When talks failed, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said CUPE was “trying to disrupt classroom learning by refusing to compromise” on what he called unreasonable demands.
CUPE is seeking annual wage increases of 11.7 percent and the government has responded by offering raises of two percent a year for workers earning less than $40,000 and 1.25 percent for all others.
Education workers are also presenting other proposals, such as overtime at twice the regular rate of pay, 30 minutes of paid preparation time per day for educational assistants and ECEs, increased benefits and professional development for all workers.
Why are workers protesting?
Michelle Campbell, a development services worker working in York Region’s public school system, says she has protested Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford’s treatment of education workers over the years.
At one point, she says she took three jobs to make ends meet, working 30 to 40 days without a day off. This ultimately gave her a fibromyalgia diagnosis, Campbell said.
“I can’t continue to do a job I love with the amount of money I’m making right now,” said Campbell, who said she sold her house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment to make do.
“Seventeen years ago it worked, but with inflation and hardly any increases in our pay, it’s just not feasible.”
Chris Kaspiris, also a development support worker with the York Regional District School Board, says that because of how understaffed his school is, it’s common for workers to miss their breaks or lunches, running from one child to the next. Because without them, he says, children with complex needs won’t engage in the classroom.
“We are here to make sure that the government funds support properly in our school system,” said Kaspiris.
“Without us there, school wouldn’t work.”
CUPE education workers have been on legal strike since November 3 and Walton has previously said what happens on that date depends on the talks leading up to it.
In previous bargaining rounds, labor-to-government did not provide enough pressure. In 2019, CUPE and the government reached a last-minute agreement the day before workers were set to go on full strike.