Our Working Conditions Are Students’ Learning Conditions! “For us, there is not one without the other.”
On November 16, the Canadian Union of Public Employees – Ontario School Board Council of Unions (CUPE-OSBCU) announced it was issuing its second strike notice during the present round of bargaining.
Laura Walton, President of CUPE-OSBCU, explained that, although the Ontario government put forward an across-the-board $1 per hour wage increase in each of the three years, it is still not addressing the working conditions required so that frontline education workers can address the needs of the students in their care. She stated: “From the beginning, we’ve been focused on improved jobs for education workers and improved services for students. For us, there is not one without the other.”
She also expressed that “[i]f this government was serious about their plan to catch up [from emergency remote learning during the pandemic], they’d listen to the workers who do the most to support learners and they’d put an early childhood educator in every kindergarten class and provide more students with the direct support of an educational assistant.” As well as the fact that “[a] wage increase doesn’t help if you’re going to lose your job,” Walton said. “A wage increase isn’t going to help when you have school boards that are finding ways to get rid of people. A wage increase isn’t going to help if your hours get cut.”
Ensuring there is an early childhood educator (ECE) in every kindergarten class refers to the fact that in Ontario there a requirement for a teacher and ECE in all kindergarten classrooms, unless the class has less than 15 students. This loophole means that when staffing kindergarten classes, school boards can maximize students in some classes in a school in order to reduce them below 15 in another class and not have to hire an ECE for that smaller class. This results in students in the smaller class not having the supports they require. The demand of CUPE-OSBCU is in fact a demand that students’ right to education is affirmed with the supports they require and shows what they mean when they say that it is “not one without the other.”
As for the issue of having enough educational assistants (EAs) to guarantee that all students who require such support get it, this is being raised because in practice students are not getting the supports they require and have a right to. This takes place as a result of many factors including that positions are not funded, filled or there are not enough people to replace staff during absences. Guaranteeing the number of human beings required to support students in the classroom is an important fight and one that will allow students in Ontario to catch up from the disruptions of the pandemic. CUPE-OSBCU has been raising that having their wages increased and improved working conditions overall, will keep educational support staff in the field for the long-term, which is an important factor given the lack of staff.
In responding to CUPE-OSBCU’s announcement, Education Minister Stephen Lecce repeated the talking points that his government is “investing in the lowest income workers” so as to continue trying to push a divide between “lower or higher income workers” that are arbitrary categories his government has created. He also presented the government’s repeal of the Keeping Students in Class Act that used the notwithstanding clause, imposed a contract and denied education workers’ right to strike as a concession to the workers. “We said we would repeal the Bill and we did that. We said that we would increase wages across the board significantly for lower paid workers, and we did that. We also said we would request no concessions of the union,” he said. The Minister seems to be saying “what more do you want from us – we gave you your rights back so be grateful and just accept whatever we offer you.” Such a position shows that the Minister and his government want to once again try to blame the workers who are trying to defend the public education system as unreasonable and aggressive, while the government that wants to underfund and privatize it as reasonable and accommodating. This signals that the government continues to try and create conditions to try and isolate, so as to attack CUPE-OSBCU education workers. Having been forced to back down on Bill 28 the government will no doubt try to find new justifications to use its police powers to undermine the workers’ just demands.