Education Workers Consider Tentative Agreement

Education workers in Ontario are amongst the lowest paid workers with very difficult working conditions as a result of government cutbacks to public education which leads, amongst other things, to understaffing in the schools. Renewal Update has been informed that education workers are seriously considering the wage offer contained in the tentative collective agreement they have been provided to vote on. They are keeping in mind that in negotiations for a new contract, they put forward not only demands for a substantial wage increase to address wages that have been eroding over 12 years, but also to address the loss of workers as a result of the dismal conditions and pay. 

To date, the government is not paying attention to this aspect, which is a problem. Meanwhile the government is paying to put what are called tutors into the schools. They are paid  $24-$25 an hour by some accounts which puts a kibosh on arguments about there being a lack of funds. These "tutors" are neither teachers nor education workers. The burden is on overstretched teachers and education workers to fit them in. Being privately contracted they are not part of bargaining units and, therefore, a ready replacement force in the event of strikes or whatever the powers that be decide requires their services. 

The government and the employer presented the repeal of the Keeping Students in Class Act as proof of good faith bargaining along with a new offer which moved from a $0.33 per hour wage increase to $1.00 per hour. But the demands for more staff for student services, i.e. hiring, or prep time for their members, are not addressed. The government has been cutting funds from public education to such an extent that working conditions are untenable.

A concern education workers have expressed is that the $1.00 per hour increase after inflation and taxes, is actually another year of not keeping up with inflation. Rents across the province are increasing drastically as are the cost of utilities, food, clothes, etc. The conditions show that $1.00 per hour does not address the deteriorating situation, let alone act as an incentive to attract new people into the field.

Reports indicate that the union won a rare concession from the government by getting the flat dollar per hour increase each year of the contract rather than a percentage increase. Renewal Update has been informed that this helps workers at the bottom of the pay scale the most, narrows the wage rate gap within the membership and is almost always bitterly opposed by public sector employers. It is also a measure which distinguishes the hourly paid workers from the salaried teachers and other professionals who are paid for the entire year and not laid off during breaks or summers. 

Although this may be considered a "win," it is not enough to address workers' actual conditions. Besides the created division between the "lowest paid" and the "highest paid," it does not address the fact that demands for wage increases go hand in hand with the demands for improved working conditions. At this point both are required just to hold the public schools together. At present, education workers are doing the work of several workers and the $1.00 dollar an hour wage increase is not enough to sort out the problem of retaining the workers already in the system or attract new workers. The current situation is such that ironically, despite the Ford government's pretense to want to "keep students in the classroom," there are schools which do not have enough staff to permit students to attend school at all.

In other words, the system does not have enough staff to provide even the basic level of care students require. Retaining the existing staff and bringing on more is an urgent necessity which the government is ignoring completely. Working conditions are learning conditions and seriously impact the rising levels of anxiety and culture of violence which is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the school system. The privatization of learning and deteriorating conditions affect not only the workers but the student youth and their families. The government's refusal to fund the system of public education and stop using public funds to pay narrow private interests to deactivate the human factor is a social/political problem the youth and their families and the workers are taking up by necessity.

Shortly after the tentative agreement with Ontario education workers, represented by CUPE-OSBCU was announced, CUPE's national president and its secretary-treasurer issued an open letter to all education workers in which they argued "No deal contains all we seek, but we are confident the bargaining committee secured all that could be secured. It is a particularly good result following the attacks on your collective bargaining rights and your right to strike, as represented by the now-repealed, thoroughly unconstitutional Bill 28. That piece of legislation, which you pushed back, would have imposed a concessionary collective agreement and wages approximately half what your committee was able to bargain."

CUPE National has recommended the tentative agreement, saying "While you were not able to achieve all you sought in this round -- namely, funding for additional, much-needed services, we recommend acceptance of this tentative agreement alongside your bargaining committee. Your fight for better services in public education will continue in the political and community arena, thanks to the tremendous mobilizing efforts of the OSBCU.

"We are very proud of what has been achieved here, in one of the toughest rounds of negotiations in the country this year."

The workers are considering how to respond. Governments of police powers arrogantly refuse to address the material conditions workers in the public and private sector face and negotiate in good faith because they consider workers to be things which are disposable. As their union pointed out, the government now needs to hear from them directly. With their defiance which defeated the Keeping in Students in Class Act, CUPE education workers already put the Ford government on notice that this is not tenable and the workers will have none of it.

This article was published in
Number 6 - November 30, 2022

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