Education workers could be off the job Monday as CUPE issues strike notice

Union planning full strike if deal not reached with province by Nov. 21

WELLINGTON COUNTY – The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has filed a five-day strike notice after contract negotiations between the union and provincial government soured once again.

The two sides returned to bargaining last week after the Progressive Conservatives agreed to repeal the controversial Bill 28 — the Keeping Students in Class Act, which would have made striking illegal and forced a contract on CUPE workers — if the union called off its strike.

CUPE Local 256 members, including custodial and maintenance staff, and English-as-a-second-language instructors at Upper Grand and Wellington Catholic school boards, stopped protesting at Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott’s Fergus constituency office on the afternoon of Nov. 7 and returned to work the following day.

“It was touch and go,” Local 256 president Bill Foster told the Advertiser last week, adding he hoped the province would “come back with a fair deal for everybody.”

But those same workers could be back on strike again on Nov. 21 if a deal isn’t reached by then.

However, all students in both local boards will be in class no matter what on Monday.

If the strike lasts longer than one day, some Catholic students will switch to remote learning. Upper Grand students wont be impacted until at least Nov. 24.

The legislation was repealed by the province as promised on Nov. 14, and the union was able to reach a “middle ground” on a yearly wage increase of roughly $1-per-hour.

To get there, the province increased its offer for wages to $335 million over four years, according to an education ministry spokesperson.

Its previous offer for an increase of less than $1-per-hour would have cost roughly $167 million over four years, the union says.

However, the union isn’t planning for strike action due to wages, but because the province isn’t supporting the union’s ask for more childhood educators, education assistants, library workers, custodians, and secretaries.

“This is not where we wanted to be … they came back without a single cent for students,” Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) president Laura Walton stated in a Nov. 16 press release.

“They’ve left us no choice.”

OSBCU Area 1 vice president Joe Tigani, who has a seat at the central bargaining table, told the Advertiser by phone “it never was just about wages for us.”

“It would be unrealistic to think that anybody isn’t concerned about their wages,” Tigani said, but more important is ensuring students are looked after in classrooms. 

“We need to see this government put forward some investment in our schools that will enhance services.”

The good news, according to Tigani, is both sides are moving closer to striking a deal.

“Are we there? Absolutely not,” he said, “or we wouldn’t have taken the action we did this morning.” 

If a deal isn’t reached by Nov. 21, a strike will create a “laser focus for everybody involved,” Tigani said. 

“We have five days to get a deal, and we will work as hard as possible … to get a deal, that’s the ultimate goal here.”

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park on Nov. 16, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the union needs to reflect on how disruptions impact working people and their children.

“It shouldn’t be a casual thing you do every other week,” he remarked.

“We offered more, we increased our wages for the lowest paid workers, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, and the union has decided to proceed in a strike.”

Whether a deal will be reached in the coming days is unknown.

Caitlin Clark, Lecce’s director of communications, did not provide an answer through an email exchange with the Advertiser on Wednesday as to what, if anything, might change between now and Monday.

However, both sides have affirmed commitments to continue bargaining.

How are local school boards responding?

Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) students will be in class for at least three days on Nov. 21, 22, and 23 before CUPE-staffed schools switch to remote learning on Nov. 24.

A complete list of all CUPE-staffed schools within the board can be found here.

Schools without CUPE custodial staff will remain in-class all four days, from Nov. 21 to 24.

Nov. 25 is a PA day across the board.

“The contingency plans … [are] based on what we learned from the previous withdrawal of services, our overall system maintenance needs, and our ability to perform the necessary functions to keep schools safe, clean and the whole system operational,” states a Nov. 17 joint statement from board chair Ralf Mesenbrink and education director Peter Sovran.

Life Skills, Youth Options, and Education and Partnership classes and programming will remain in-person throughout any strike next week.

In the event of a strike, schools will not be available for community use, and all adult English-as-a-second-language classes will be cancelled, regardless of where they are held. However, all child care centres will remain open.

Mesenbrink and Sovran thanked families and the community in their statement for “understanding and support.”

Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) spokesperson Ali Wilson stated in an email that all schools and before-and-after programs will remain open on Monday in the event of a strike.

If a strike lasts beyond Nov. 21, “it is anticipated that we will not be able to maintain our CUPE-staffed schools to the level required,” Wilson said.

All Catholic schools in Erin, Rockwood and Guelph would shift to online learning. 

St. John Bosco and Wellington Catholic schools in Fergus, Arthur, Elora and Mount Forest will not be affected.

Previously, WCDSB students switched to online learning on Nov. 7 before returning to classrooms.

UGDSB students were about to switch to remote learning before strikes were called off.