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Support Ontario education workers!

Peter Votsch, CUPE retiree

November 2, 2022
Education Assistants, daycare, maintenance and clerical staff, members of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU-CUPE) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike and are ready to walk out on November 5. Conservative Education Minister, Steven Lecce has announced that the government will force back-to-work legislation, essentially depriving the workers of their constitutional right to strike. They need full support from working people across the province.
How did we get here?
Public sector workers, and in particular, workers in the education sector, have been the favourite targets in the last decade for first Liberal, and now Tory provincial governments in Ontario. This is dating back to the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne Liberals, who brought in Bill 115, removing bargaining rights for education workers, and centralizing bargaining to remove any wiggle room school boards may have had to offer better settlements to educational workers, to the Ford Tories attack on teachers’ wages and conditions in 2019 and early 2020.
Cuts have been the order of the day, especially under Ford. In the most recent Tory budget, education expenditure has seen a $1.3 billion shortfall. This is on top of the push, during the pandemic, to move students to permanent online learning as part of their education; on top of the teachers’ unions fights of 2019 to limit the Ford government’s  attempts to increase class sizes.
Meanwhile, educational assistants, members of OSBCU have seen their numbers decrease, and a concurrent increase in workload. Maintenance staff have found themselves scrambling to keep schools clean during a pandemic. This despite earning on average $39,000 a year.
How did wages get this low? A decade of accepting negligible increases in the 1-2% range, despite increasing costs of living. This in a workforce that is 70% women, which represents the true face of the lack of equity faced by women workers. Add to this the fact that 60% of school board workers are layed off for the summer (taking EI is no relief – it amounts to a maximum 55% of earnings). As a result, 51% of OSBCU members have to take at least 1 more job, and 91% report facing financial hardship. This while being tasked with one of the most important and difficult roles – preparing the next generation for adulthood.
OSBCU members have had enough – they have demanded an 11.7% wage increase, to the Tories’ best offer of 2%. Given the $2.1 billion surplus the Tories have recently announced, paying educational workers should be a no-brainer, except when we remember that the Ford Tories are set on gutting public education and healthcare, by creating a crisis, and thereby stoking public anger.
Other demands made by OSBCU are equally important: pay casuals the same rate as permanent workers (taking away the incentive of the employer to favour them), introduce language that will set minimum staffing requirements directly in the Collective Agreement (CA), schedule and pay workers for prep time and give them 5 paid days before the school year starts. Extra ECEs for full-day kindergarten; minimum staffing in school libraries; better overtime provisions; language on workplace violence. Crucially, OSBCU is looking for funding to increase the complement of workers in all positions, to make up those positions lost/not filled during the last bargaining round.
The threat of back to work legislation comes on top of Bill 124, which removed the rights of public sector workers to bargain wage and benefit increases and Bill 195 that allowed employers to ignore provisions of legally binding agreement during Covid, and forced back-to-work legislation being used on university teaching assistants and power workers.
The battle lines are drawn – ordinary working class people who depend on quality public services accessible to all, versus a Tory government bent on providing private services to those that can afford them. This means the entire labour movement have an important stake in this battle, most likely to be fought out on the picket line. As OSBCU moves towards setting up their lines, there must be open communication with the OFL and local labour councils, so that solidarity on the lines can be coordinated on day one. If the Tories get their way, there may be no day two, and we as workers will suffer another setback.
It is not up to OSBCU-CUPE to confront this use of repression alone. There needs to be open discussion in the labour movement about how we can go about defying back-to-work legislation in the moment – not going to court and getting a result years later. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, this and other repressive tools will become the norm – if we allow it. We will continue to pay for high inflation, and a ‘corrective’ recession (for them), that will destroy our standard of living.
We can fight back – when we fight as a class, united in solidarity. The details of what we do today will determine the terrain on which we fight tomorrow. Let’s get to it.
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