By Colin MacKay, Intelligencer Writers Group -Tuesday, August 18, 2015 2:07:05 EDT
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents many school support staff, has been extremely frustrated by the lack of progress with contract talks with the province.
Many workers and negotiators feel they have been overshadowed by the teacher’s federation’s contract negotiations. In all cases, both teachers and support workers have been without a contract since, August 31, 2014. In a show of bravado, on May 28, Liz Sandals, Education Minister, stood up at Queen’s Park, boasting she could do a lot of bargaining in 102 days.
Support staff workers may include custodians, tradespeople, secretaries, computer technicians, educational assistants and some early childhood educators to name a few. These people feel they are not being taken seriously by the provincial government. To back up their claim, they point to a meeting arranged by Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario, on July 23, with all of the teacher’s federation’s presidents. CUPE did not receive an invitation for this meeting.
CUPE represents roughly 55,000 men and women who, on average, make $38,000 a year. They keep schools clean and safe. Often, the secretary is the first person anyone entering the office area meets. Educational assistants often have to deal with students that have considerable difficulty in school. These support workers are essential in the day-to-day running of a school. Yet, negotiations are apparently at a standstill. Less than five days have been used for negotiating with CUPE, since May 28th. Maybe Sandals is a miracle worker and will magically come to a negotiated agreement with CUPE before students arrive in September. Certainly, the days are passing quickly with little movement toward an agreement.
CUPE will be holding provincial meetings at the end of August to determine whether or not they will be going out on a full strike or choosing to have a work-to-rule campaign. There are talks scheduled for Aug. 19 and Aug. 20 in a last minute effort to avoid labour unrest. Sandals certainly is leaving everything to the last minute. Sometimes time pressure can be used as an effective method of reaching a deal or parties can dig in their heels. Apparently, Sandals decided to take most of the summer off when dealing with CUPE and their issues.
The provincial government is pursuing an austerity agenda and wants to cut education costs. Cuts to special education programming are usually at the chopping block first when an austerity agenda is pursued. While the need for more support workers has never been higher in Ontario, boards of education when faced with cuts inevitably lessen the number of educational assistants. Or, boards may attempt to further integrate special education students into the regular classroom.
Nevertheless, special education programs are being cut back in boards all over the province. If special education funding is inadequate, usually support staff workers are the first to lose their positions. These workers can be the ears and eyes of a school, keeping a school running more smoothly. Without them issues tend to creep into the classroom much more readily.
School support staff workers deserve a negotiated contract this year, hopefully before school begins. If not, schools could be considerably dirtier with no custodians taking out the garbage. Messages may be lost if secretaries are not around to answer the phone. Unruly students will take up a considerable amount of a teacher’s or principal’s time without support from an educational assistant or child youth care workers. These workers are needed and should never ever be taken for granted. Come September, if there is no contract between CUPE and the province, public schools in some cases may have to close.
Liz Sandals seems confident that deals with CUPE and teachers federations will soon be signed. She has a couple of weeks to succeed. If not, chaos in schools is almost guaranteed.
– Colin MacKay is an ETFO member with more than 25 years experience in local classrooms.