Original Published on Aug 16, 2022 at 17:55
By Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ontario’s education minister offered educational assistants, school library workers, custodians and other school staff a pay raise of no more than two per cent a year on Monday, in a proposal the union representing them described as “disheartening.”
The Ford government called its proposal “a fair deal in recognition of the valued work” those workers provide, but it was significantly less than what the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) sought earlier this month: a $3.25-an-hour increase for workers who earn an average of $39,000 a year.
The government offer, by comparison, would amount to about 55 cents an hour, or $800 a year, CUPE said. It comes in the wake of three years of wage suppression across much of the public sector and soaring inflation this year that has further weakened purchasing power.
Workers earning more than $40,000 a year were offered a 1.25 per cent raise.
“This is the government that talks about better jobs and bigger paycheques,” said Laura Walton, an educational assistant from Belleville and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, which is currently negotiating a new collective agreement for around 55,000 non-teaching school staff.
“I’m not sure if $800 in the face of rising inflation can be considered a bigger paycheque,” she said. “And in fact, given the inflation as it is, this is actually a pay cut to these education workers.”
The terms are also unlikely to help with the province’s shortage of teachers and other education workers, Walton said.
“Fifty-five cents an hour is not going to attract people to these jobs,” she said, noting that negotiators for the Ministry of Education acknowledged concerns regarding how many people have been enrolling in programs that would lead them to these jobs.
This deal precedes those the re-elected Progressive Conservatives must reach with four main teachers’ unions ahead of the return to school for the province’s two million elementary and high school students in early September.
Negotiations three years ago saw months of rotating strikes and other job actions by the province’s four main teachers’ unions but were quickly wrapped up after the arrival of COVID-19.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in his statement that the four-year terms of this deal (compared to a typical three-year deal) would be extended by regulation to all those unions in order to provide stability to parents and students.
With starting positions far apart on salary — education workers are seeking a roughly 11.7 per cent raise per year — and a range of other issues, CUPE’s Walton pleaded poverty for education workers across the province and said they were struggling to maintain service levels for students dealing with more than two years of pandemic interruptions.
“Education workers across this province are fighting to stay out of poverty while they fight to provide the services that we know that students, families and communities need,” she said. “The proposal of only $800 on average per year in the face of skyrocketing inflation is not going to pay the rent, not going to put food on the table, nor will it address the staffing issues that are rampant in our schools.”
Those workers were subject to the Ford government’s Bill 124, which in 2019 capped some public-sector workers’ wage increases at one per cent a year for three years, and before that to several years of wage freezes imposed by a previous Liberal government.
These factors have led to wage increases equal to 8.8 per cent between 2012 and 2021, while inflation rose 19.5 per cent in that time, CUPE said.
Lecce argued that applying the union’s proposed percentage increases to the pay rates of higher-paid teachers would create a hypothetical $21.8-billion cost to taxpayers, equal to the education budgets of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan combined.
“We need CUPE to table an offer that is fair and sustainable,” he said. “We are committed to a fair deal, but it cannot compromise the fiscal sustainability of the publicly funded education system.”
This item reprinted with permission from Canada’s National Observer, Ottawa, Ontario