Ontario education workers have ratified a tentative deal between their union and employer, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said Monday, closing off a tumultuous bargaining period with a high-turnout vote.

More than 41,000 of the union’s 55,000 school workers voted, and more than 30,000 said ‘yes’ to the $1-an-hour-per-year pay raise applied across pay rates, CUPE said.

“We pried every improvement from this government that we could this time,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), which represents early childhood educators, custodians and maintenance workers, educational assistants (EAs), secretaries and other office staff, social workers, lunchroom supervisors and library technicians.

Teachers' unions are currently in their own bargaining talks with the Ford government and the province's school boards.

The CUPE deal was reached after a two-day work stoppage closed schools last month in protest against a government bill that mandated contract terms and banned strikes, a legislative move that united an otherwise fairly fractious labour movement.

But while the union returned to talks after the standoff, saying they wanted more commitments to improve student services, they took the final offer back to their members with no new government funds added.

“Tomorrow, we start to harness our momentum and start organizing for the next fight because we have far more fight left in us,” Walton said. "Believe me when I tell you, we will never be silenced again."

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said after the results that his government goal throughout the negotiations had been to keep students in class and that he was "so pleased we've been able to reach an agreement that has now been overwhelmingly ratified by the members."

At its last ratification vote in 2019, only around 10,000 members (around 18 per cent) voted, Walton said.

Ontario education workers approved a tentative deal with their employer, the union representing them said Monday as it pledged to keep up the fight for more investment in schools. #OntEd #ONpoli

This time, more than 11,000 voted ‘no,’ suggesting an engaged workforce not entirely thrilled with this outcome. Walton also did not wholeheartedly endorse the deal publicly during the voting window.

She said EAs and early childhood educators in particular opposed the deal due to the lack of service improvements for students.

“They know the struggle,” she said. “This minister will stand up here and tell you that everything's fine. They're not. It's not stable, it's not normal."

Michelle Campbell joined Walton at Queen's Park to announce the ratification of the four-year deal.

She is one of six EAs in a York Region elementary school of 750 students. Three of them are assigned to specific autism and other high-need classes, she said, leaving the other three to support, on average, 230 students each.

“While I voted to accept this agreement, I totally understand how some of my co-workers didn't, and why so many others aren't jumping up and down with joy to do so,” she said.

Michelle Campbell voted in favour of the tentative deal that offered no new student supports but said she understood why some of her colleagues didn't or are not excited about it. Photo by Morgan Sharp

“In my decades working as an EA, I've never seen anything as bad as what schools are like right now,” she said. “There simply isn't enough staff to do the work supporting our students.”

Campbell said boards are recruiting untrained parents to fill in when staff aren’t available and there are not enough caretakers to clean schools.

She said EAs are pulled from special education programming to do crisis intervention calls and designated early childhood educators routinely support one or two students because cuts to autism programs mean more students with autims spectrum disorder are in full kindergarten classes.

"All of this amounts to barely any supports for academics anymore," she said. "We're just dealing with behaviour and safety."

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading

Fundamentally, Conservatives will never adequately fund education. They hate public education, for two basic reasons: First, they hate everything public, and education is one example. Second, they hate education itself. Largely because their votes come from the rich (who are too small a minority to win you an election) and from the ignorant. Educated people are much more likely to see through their repugnant nonsense. And this fact seems to have led to an actual visceral reaction; the hard right hate and fear education at a gut level.