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Canada

Negotiations with Ontario school board workers reach critical stage

Ottawa elementary school teacher Jennifer Duncan spent Tuesday evening standing on Hunt Club Road in the rain with a picket sign that read “You Can’t Do More With Less.”

She had joined a protest by support staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees outside the Ottawa Catholic School Board, even though Duncan has a different job in another school board and belongs to a different union.

Educators are all in it together, Duncan said, adding she couldn’t do her job without the essential services of the CUPE educational assistants who work with students that have special needs.

Besides, she may be in a similar situation soon. The union representing Ontario elementary teachers has announced its members will follow CUPE in taking strike votes.

Just how united the province’s education unions will be is a key factor as negotiations with school boards reach critical stages.

Contracts for education workers, including everyone from teachers to office staff and custodians, expired at the end of August.

Unions have been fighting changes introduced by the provincial Conservative government, including larger classes, mandatory online courses for high school students and cuts to per-pupil funding.

Will there be labour disruptions at schools that could include a work-to-rule or strike? Will the government back down on its plan to save money on education, in order to trim the deficit, through measures such as larger classes?

That drama will unfold over the next weeks.

For now all eyes are on CUPE, which is further along in the bargaining process.

CUPE represents 55,000 support staff, including educational assistants, early childhood educators in kindergartens, office staff and custodians. That union will be in a legal strike position Sept. 23, according to a spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

CUPE members across the province are taking strike votes, including Ottawa Catholic School Board employees who gathered at the Nepean Sportsplex Thursday.

People interviewed outside the meeting said they feared they would be asked for concessions.

“I’m going to vote for a strike or a work-to-rule,” educational assistant Matt Moss said. “Are they going to take more away from us?”

Assistants at the board earn between $39,800 and $43,000 for the school year.

“I love working with children,” Moss said. “I work with great people, but financially it just doesn’t work in the long-term.”

Across the province, 585 CUPE jobs have been eliminated, according to union estimates. In other cases, staff have had their hours reduced.

That varies by board, though, and there have been no CUPE jobs lost at the Ottawa Catholic School Board, according to the local. Enrolment at schools in the board is growing.

Another key issue raised by education workers interviewed at both the protest and strike vote this week was increasing aggression and violence among students.

Several educational assistants say they need more staff to deal with students who bite, scratch, kick and punch them. One says she wears a padded suit and neck guard to work for protection.

A statement from the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, which bargains with CUPE as well as the unions representing public elementary and secondary teachers, said it would “continue to negotiate in good faith … over the coming weeks.”

“Our goal is to negotiate collective agreements that are fair, fiscally responsible, and most importantly, give every Ontario student access to the best possible education,” president Cathy Abraham said.

Here are some key dates:

Sept. 23: The 55,000 members of CUPE are in a legal strike position. The union must provide five calendar days’ notice before staging a labour disruption, which could include a work-to-rule, rotating or complete strike. It’s expected the result of a strike vote among members will be known Sept. 17. However, central bargaining continues, with dates scheduled for Sept. 17-18.

Late September: The union representing 83,000 elementary school teachers plans to hold membership meetings and strike votes from late September into October, with results announced in early November.

President Sam Hammond says the goal is to reach an agreement through bargaining, and information posted on the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario website stresses that a strong vote in favour of a strike does not necessarily mean teachers will strike. “Strike votes simply convey to all the parties involved in bargaining the degree to which ETFO members want to see a fair deal being reached. A decision to commence strike action is a strategic decision that is made at a time when the union feels it must escalate in order to make progress at the bargaining table.”

Talks are scheduled for later this month, according to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

September-ongoing: Bargaining continues with the unions representing English public high school teachers and teachers in English Catholic schools.

Talks had stopped with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation while both sides waited for a labour board ruling on what issues should be bargained centrally and locally. Dates are now being scheduled “in the near future” to resume “issues bargaining,” according to the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

OSSTF President Harvey Bischof has criticized the government for undercutting bargaining by raising class sizes, eventually eliminating an estimated 3,475 jobs, and pledging to cap wage increases for public sector workers.

The government’s plan to increase high school classes from an average of 22 students to 28 students over the next four years has been controversial.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said class sizes could be lower than 28, however, if unions or trustees propose innovative solutions during bargaining that would save money elsewhere.

jmiller@postmedia.com

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