Five things to know about the looming education workers’ strike in Ontario


Education workers across Ontario will walk off the job on Monday if contract negotiations with the province and school boards that got underway Friday are unsuccessful. Here are five things to know about the looming labour action:


The contract for 55,000 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees expired on Aug. 31. The union, government and school boards have been in contract negotiations until talks broke off last weekend. The union began a work-to-rule campaign this week to pressure the other parties to reach an agreement. Members — including janitors, clerical staff and early childhood educators — stopped working overtime and performing a number of other duties, including cleaning hallways and emptying garbage cans outside schools. Earlier this week, the union gave formal strike notice that workers will hit the picket lines on Monday.


CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents the workers, says their main issue is “security of services.” They accuse the Progressive Conservative government of cutting services that resulted in worker job losses. The union is asking that those cuts be reversed and staffing levels restored. It’s also said the government’s bid to introduce a one per cent wage increase — a cap the Tories plan to introduce in all bargaining across the public sector — is still being discussed. The government and school boards have flagged absenteeism as a problem, and are also asking for what they call “modest” changes to short-term disability wages.


Different boards have decided to cope with a potential strike in different ways, with at least two dozen saying they’d have no choice but to close school doors. The Toronto District School Board — the largest in the country — said there’s no feasible way for it to operate when 18,000 of its roughly 38,000 employees would be on strike. TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird cited what he called essential positions that would sit empty: office staff who call parents if their child gets on a bus but doesn’t show up to class; maintenance workers who ensure buildings are safe and warm; and early childhood educators who back up kindergarten teachers who can’t keep a close eye on all 30 five-year-olds in their class at once.


The patchwork response to the strike puts parents in different positions depending on where they live, but those in regions where school is cancelled need to figure out where their kids will go during the school day. In some areas, child-care providers will be operating as if it’s a professional advancement (PA) day, charging extra for the extra hours of care. But other services, such as city-run “after-school recreation care” (ARC) in Toronto, will be cancelled entirely and parents need to find alternatives. Some are staying home with their kids, some are calling on grandparents for help and others still are towing their kids to work.


Doug Ford has made no public comments about the potential labour action since CUPE gave its notice earlier this week. His office said Friday he “remains fully engaged” on the file and has full confidence in Education Minister Stephen Lecce to ensure the best outcome. Meanwhile, NDP Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath and Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser have both criticized Ford’s silence on the talks. The government and workers returned to the bargaining table Friday afternoon and have said they’ll negotiate through the weekend. If they’re able to reach a deal by Monday, the work-to-rule campaign will end and school operations will return to normal. But if they can’t, education workers will walk off the job.

Shawn Jeffords and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press