CUPE calls off strike, schools to reopen Monday as tentative deal reached with province
Last-ditch negotiations landed a tentative deal between CUPE and the government.
Nov. 21, 2022
The strike is off -- and school is on.
Last-ditch negotiations landed a tentative deal between CUPE and the government, averting job action by support staff that would have seen hundreds of thousands of children in boards across the province out of class and learning virtually from home.
However, the agreement is largely unchanged from what was on the table before the weekend talks -- with an average wage increase of more than 15 per cent over the four-year contract.
The union was unsuccessful in its push for $100 million for additional support staff, said school boards’ bargaining unit leader Laura Walton, adding the team is taking the contract to the 55,000 members to vote on nonetheless.
“As a mom, I don’t like this deal. As a worker, I don’t like this deal. As the president of the (bargaining unit) I understand what this deal is on the table. I think it falls short,” said Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions.
However, she added, she had to do “the right thing as a leader” and take it to the 55,000 early childhood educators, educational assistants and custodians to decide.
The tentative deal provides workers with a $1 an hour raise each year over four years, meaning the lowest paid workers will receive about 4 per cent a year, and those earning more than $70,000 approximately 1.8 per cent a year, sources close to the talks told the Star.
Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, Education Minister Stephen Lecce didn’t want to discuss specifics but said “what I can confirm is all parties -- the government union, trustees (associations) -- all of us leave this tentative agreement with positive outcomes from what we were trying to advance. I think all parties have been able to receive some incremental wins.”
Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, speaks to the media in Toronto on Nov. 16, 2022.
He said, however, “the greatest beneficiary of this deal is our kids who are going to be in school. That’s what matters. This is not about unions winning or government winning. It’s about our kids, and they’re going to be in class.”
He has previously noted that grants to boards for this school year already provided funds for 1,800 additional support staff positions.
News of the tentative agreement came around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, after the two sides had promised to let parents know by 5 p.m. whether support staff would hit the picket lines.
Mediated talks were held at a downtown Toronto hotel last week and over the weekend in the hopes of landing a deal after the government rescinded controversial legislation that pre-emptively banned the support staff from striking and imposed a four-year contract on them using the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause.
CUPE school staff walked off the job for two days, and with the support of organized labour across the country was able to force the government to climb down and repeal Bill 28.
But CUPE’s hopes that organized labour would rally to the union as had happened during the “notwithstanding clause” debacle were dashed Thursday.
That’s when representatives of eight private-sector unions -- which had endorsed the Tories in the June 2 election and then criticized them for the Charter override -- appeared at a training centre funding announcement with Labour Minister Monte McNaughton and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy.
That revealed to CUPE leadership that union solidarity wasn’t forever as soon as Bill 28 was off the table.
Even some public-sector unions, which did not back the Tories, were privately telling CUPE to accept the 15.2 per cent over four years that was on offer.
There were concerns in the labour movement that CUPE might overplay its hand after forcing Premier Doug Ford to capitulate earlier this month.
School support staff will begin voting on the tentative deal on Thursday, and Walton said she hoped to wrap things up by the end of the weekend.
Should members reject the deal, CUPE would have to provide five days notice before any job action.
“The entire central bargaining committee wishes we could have moved the government to make the investments in public education that you not only wanted, but that you needed and that your children deserve. That fight does not end with one setback,” Walton said.
“We will keep representing your needs and we will keep fighting for you and with you. Basically, what we have been told by this government is that they are not willing to budge any further. And so at this point, we are bringing it back to the members.”
She acknowledged that the $1 an hour “is more than we’ve maybe seen in public sectors, but I think it also falls very short of what workers need in this current climate.”
However, she added, “when you’re being told by the government that there is no possible way that they’re going to improve, then you have to do the right thing as a leader, which often is very uncomfortable, and you need to bring it forth to the workers to use their voice.”
A source close to the talks said the agreement also promises a task force to look at absenteeism.
School boards were relieved at the news, given many had warned parents to prepare for online learning in the event of a strike.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said “we’re very pleased that students will be in the classroom tomorrow. This tentative agreement recognizes the important contributions of our vital education workers and the significant roles they play in our schools.”
“The tentative agreement ensures that the students in Catholic schools throughout Ontario and the dedicated CUPE staff who serve them will remain in schools Monday,” said Patrick Daly, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.