Ontario education workers need ‘real wages,’ union says ahead of bargaining

The union representing Ontario education workers is focusing on higher wages and job security as it gears up for contract talks with the province.

CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) served the province with a notice to bargain on Friday, and negotiations could begin as soon as the end of the month.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE-OSBCU, said at the union’s convention in Windsor on Monday that education workers are “ready to fight.”

The union represents about 55,000 workers including library employees, custodians, education assistants, social workers and other school employees.

Walton said the union’s members are the lowest paid employees in the education system. On average, they make $39,000 per year, though some only earn a minimum wage.

“They need real wages,” Walton said.

They also need security, Walton said, referencing job cuts among educational assistants, early childhood educators, custodians, library and clerical workers.

“Parents need to know that the services they rely on, that our workers proudly provide, will be there in September for them.”

CBC contacted Ontario’s Ministry of Education for comment but officials did not provide a response by deadline.

Along with other Ontario public sector workers, salary increases for education workers have been capped at one per cent per year under Bill 124, which took effect in 2019.

Labor studies professor Larry Savage of Brock University expects this will be the first in a long line of negotiations with provincial workers that will likely end up in strikes over the next four years.

“It’ll be a first test for the Ford government. During the election they made a big deal out of saying that they were going to work for workers, and now you have educational workers whose pay has been capped or frozen for the better part of a decade, looking for significant wage increases and more supports in the schools. And so I think there is going to be a very interesting round of bargaining.”

If the union and the province can’t come to an agreement and a strike vote is passed, the workers could be in a legal strike position by the end of August.

“Nobody wants to strike, but at the end of the day, we need real change,” Walton said.