Ontario education union planning strike votes, says doesn't mean strike will happen

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TORONTO — A union representing Ontario education workers is planning to talk about organizing strike votes at a meeting later this month, a move the education minister calls "needless escalation."

The Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents 55,000 workers including early childhood educators, school administration workers, bus drivers and custodians — sent a memo to members this week about an Aug. 22 meeting.

The agenda includes "provincewide central and local strike votes and the organizing plan to achieve high participation."

Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said the purpose of the meeting is to hear from workers about what next steps they would like to take.

"Talking about and preparing for what we may need to do in the future does not necessarily mean the strike," she said.

CUPE has had five or six bargaining dates with the government and has several more scheduled, Walton said.

Having initial strike discussions at this point isn't unusual, she said.

"When I was looking at what we did last round, we're almost par for the course where we were timeline-wise, in regards to strike and strike planning," Walton said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said CUPE should put its energy into negotiating at the bargaining table instead of planning for a strike in the early stages of bargaining.

"I hope that today the union will walk back this needless escalation and just work with us in good faith to get a deal for these kids so that they can stay in school," he said.

The government is planning to table its first "substantive" offer to CUPE on Monday, Lecce said.

"Before we even provide them the financials, they're taking a step to strike," he said. "I do believe that is not consistent with the spirit of a voluntary deal."

CUPE has asked the province for annual wage increases of 11.7 per cent - or $3.25 per hour - arguing workers' wages have been restricted over the last decade and inflation is expected to rise further. Public sector workers have had wage increases limited to one per cent annually in recent years due to a controversial government bill.

The wage restraint legislation known as Bill 124 played a large role in tense bargaining during the last round, but the government had also angered teachers by seeking increases to class sizes and mandating four online courses for high school graduation.

It eventually largely backed off of increasing class sizes and decided to require two online courses, though with an opt-out.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said CUPE is within its rights to be prepared if a strike is necessary.

"The Ford government has really always shown that it's not a huge fan of teachers' unions," he said.

"These are the folks who stood up three years ago and said no to mandatory e-learning, yes to lower class sizes. And thank goodness, they did that. Can you imagine what COVID would have been like if class sizes would have even been larger?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press