While two Durham-area school boards turn to unqualified staff to fill vacancies, education workers are united in their fight to improve schools, better serve students, and secure good jobs.

Members of CUPE Local 218, representing 4000 education workers, participated in an historic strike vote alongside their 51,000 coworkers across the province. An overwhelming 96.2 per cent of Durham education workers voted “yes”, signaling to the Durham District School Board (DDSB) and Durham Catholic District School Board (DCDSB) that they are serious about their demands for more reasonable workloads that better allow them to prioritize student success.

“Never in the 53 years of this Local’s history have we had member engagement like this,” said Dennis Gibbs, a maintenance worker and president of CUPE Local 218. “It’s a clear sign from my coworkers that after years of disrespect and policies that have harmed students and increased demands on workers, we’re standing up for what is right for students, families, and workers.”

CUPE Local 218 is made up of educational assistants, language instructors, custodians, maintenance staff, technology workers, office staff, and continuing education instructors. The backbone of Durham schools, they make an average of $39,000 a year.

“The lack of respect we receive from our employers is the most urgent issue for me,” explains Lindsay McGrath, an educational assistant with the DCDSB. A casual employee, McGrath works nearly every day but doesn’t receive benefits, leaving her with medical needs – like glasses – that she can’t afford. “I wake up every day unsure if I’m going to get a call. I’m ready at 6 am, but I may not have work. When I do work, some days I don’t get a break at all. I run from classroom to classroom. There should be enough support. We shouldn’t just be meeting the baseline of students’ needs, we should be giving them more support and taking care of our workers.”

Protecting casual employees, like McGrath, within the collective agreement is a focus of local negotiations. As is ensuring school boards aren’t able to hire untrained staff like they’ve been doing this year, putting parents in classrooms in place of educational assistants. Also being negotiated locally are increasing demands placed on office staff and custodians, sick leave, and vacation.

“We have educational assistants looking after more students than ever before, custodians doing the job of two or three workers, and school boards who have put up hurdles or just denied sick leave and vacation,” says Gibbs. “My coworkers showed up throughout the pandemic to make sure students and our schools were looked after. Now we’re looking to be treated fairly by our employers.”

These issues will not come as a surprise to the Board or the Province. Member of Provincial Parliament for Ajax, Patrice Barnes, served as a Public School Trustee on the DDSB. Barnes is also the Parliamentary Assistant to Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

“The public doesn’t see what we’re dealing with. I’ll be in a classroom responsible for 7 kids, each with their own independent learning plan. One student will be at a grade 1 level, another at a grade 3, another will have severe behavioral challenges. How can I effectively support them to develop skills they need while accommodating their needs? I can’t,” says McGrath. “It breaks my heart that lots of our students are going without support. It seems like school board managers do everything they can to cut services and staff. They’re failing these students and it doesn’t have to be this way.”

The local bargaining committee met with the DDSB on October 3 but was unable to agree to ground rules following demands from the Board for a media blackout and to allow non-unionized workers to fill education worker roles. The committee has eight more upcoming dates with the DDSB and will meet to agree on ground rules with the DCDSB on October 19.