Education workers in Wellington County set to strike Friday

Members of CUPE Local 256 will protest at the offices of local MPPs on Nov. 4

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Education workers at the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) and the Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) who are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) will strike alongside their colleagues across the province on Friday.

CUPE Local 256 president Bill Foster confirmed to the Advertiser by phone on the afternoon of Nov. 3 that a strike will take place Nov. 4 following a breakdown in contract negotiations between the province and union.

CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU)—representing 55,000 education workers province-wide, including assistants, early childhood educators, caretakers, school library workers, and clerical staff—was seeking an 11.7 per cent annual increase, or about $3.25 per hour, for education workers over the next four years, in addition to other asks, such as increased overtime pay, paid prep time for educational support staff and early childhood educators, and an increase in support staff and early childhood educators.

Contract negotiations between the union and the province concluded Nov. 3 without a deal being reached, as new legislation forcing a contract on workers and making it illegal to strike, through use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms notwithstanding clause, was rammed through Queen’s Park by the Progressive Conservative government.

“This afternoon we were informed that mediation has concluded,” a statement from the OSBCU said. “Regardless of the attempts by your OSBCU Bargaining Committee to achieve a negotiated deal that respects the needs of workers, students and families, the Ford Conservative government would not make the necessary investments to achieve this deal.”

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province was negotiating “literally right up to the last minute, today,” until meditations were called off “on the basis that we remained far apart.”

“We’ve made good-faith efforts to reach a fair deal, but all along CUPE refused to take strikes and disruption off the table,” Lecce said, adding that CUPE has “left us with no choice but to pass the Keeping Kids in Class Act.”

Lecce said after the legislation was passed, a strike would become “illegal.”

The union and individual members could face fines ranging up to $500,000 for the union and $4,000 for members.

Lecce addressed students and parents as well, saying the government would “use every tool we have to end their disruption,” and accused the union of causing anxiety for students and parents.

CUPE members within the boards will protest the legislation—passed late Thursday afternoon in a 74 to 30 vote at Queen’s Park—at the offices of local members of provincial parliament on Friday, including MPPs Ted Arnott, Mike Schreiner and Sylvia Jones.

“It’s important to be there tomorrow,” said Foster, of Local 256, which represents custodial staff at both school boards.

Foster says members have “mixed feelings” about striking and the uncertainty hanging over a precarious situation, but added, “We realize we have to stick together.”

“They don’t want to be on the line anymore than I want to be on the line; I’d sooner be at work, they would sooner be at work,” he remarked.

Spokespersons from both school boards confirmed absent CUPE members will not be paid for days they are not at work.

Foster, who works in general maintenance with the UGDSB, said the government’s legislation “takes away the right to get a fair and equitable contract.”

When he began working for the board in 2007, caretaker wages sat around $19.62 per hour.

“And 15 years later, a caretaker makes $21.78,” he said, explaining that wage freezes and contract rollovers have keep wages largely stagnant for over a decade.

The unions’ fight is “not with our boards,” he emphasized, “the fight is with the government.”

Foster said Local 256 has a “good rapport” with both boards, and has previously had amicable discussions about local agreements over premiums, clothing allowance, vacation, and the like.

“We don’t want to see kids out, we don’t want to see the schools shut down,” he said. “We were hoping today that there would be a deal, that none of this would happen.”

If no deal materializes between the province and the union between Friday and Monday, Foster said members will return to the offices of MPPs next week.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m going to take it day by day and hope that the both parties can get back to the table … where they can cut a deal,” he said.

In a subsequent phone call with the Advertiser later Thursday afternoon, Foster said the strike was now being called a protest.

“We’ll be there, we’re just calling it a protest,” he said, explaining that the change in language comes after a CUPE/OBSCU conference call on Thursday.

It’s unclear what led to the change in wording, and multiple requests from the Advertiser for comment from CUPE officials, including OBSCU president Laura Walton and CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, have gone without responses as of publishing.

Foster did however confirm there will be a full withdrawal of services by CUPE staff as of midnight.