OSBCU president Laura Walton speaking at press conference55,000 education workers who are members of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions filed for conciliation on Friday.

Conciliation is a process by which a conciliation officer is appointed by the Ministry of Labour to meet with the education workers’ central bargaining committee and the representatives of the Council of Trustees’ Associations and Crown to attempt to help the two parties reach a collective agreement.

“Since June 3 when we served notice to bargain our next collective agreement with the Council of Trustees’ Associations and the Ontario government, my 55,000 coworkers and I have been fighting for decent wages, increased services for students, and a reinvestment in public education after a decade of government cuts that continue to cause instability today.” said Laura Walton, an educational assistant and the president of the Ontario School Boards Council of Unions. “All summer, the only thing education minister Stephen Lecce has proposed is a disrespectful offer that would cement the Ford government’s real per-student funding cuts which have put significant and completely avoidable strain on children, families, and workers.”

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government cut education funding by $800 per student (adjusted for inflation) over its first term. With two million students in Ontario’s schools, that’s a $1.6 billion cut in funding this year alone – money that should have been used to improve supports for students, increase staffing levels to guarantee services, and raise the wages of education workers.

“Given the high inflation that everyone’s experiencing, education workers who are paid on average only $39,000 per year cannot afford to accept another pay cut. It’s still within the Stephen Lecce and Doug Ford’s power to direct their people at the table to accept our reasonable, necessary, and affordable Proposals for Student Success and Good Jobs or to at least make a respectful offer,” Walton said. “But with the education minister wasting his time fearmongering and getting his math wrong, we’re filing for conciliation in the hope that a third party can help refocus the government and school board bosses on getting a fair collective agreement done.”

From 2012 to the end of 2021, wage increases for Ontario education workers totaled just 8.8%. Over the same period, using data from Government of Ontario budget documents, total inflation was 19.5%. This means education workers have already taken a 10.7% wage cut.

“During the last 85 days, Stephen Lecce and Doug Ford’s negotiators have met with us just eight times. In four days, students will have no service guarantees,” Walton said of the pace of negoatiations. “In five days, education workers will have nothing to prevent their wages from being devalued again and school boards will still have problems recruiting and retaining employees due to low pay.” 

In September and October 2021 CUPE-OSBCU education workers completed a survey on how being paid low wages affects their lives. 51.4% of respondents said they had to work at least one additional job to make ends meet. 91% said they have faced at least one form of financial hardship because of their low wages. 60% are laid off every summer with the majority needing unemployment insurance to survive (even in the best case, EI only replaces 55% of eligible earnings). 41% have been late making a bill payment because their wages are insufficient to meet their needs. 24% confirmed struggling to pay for gas or public transit (before the recent spike in gas prices). 27% of respondents reported having to cut back on food (also before the explosion of inflation in 2022).

“In the next 60 days, the government and school board bosses have offered only seven days to meet for negotiations with the workers who are the backbone of your children’s schools. It’s unfortunate that the Ford government has not yet been serious about having education workers’ backs or getting it done. Still, education workers remain ready to talk and ready to bargain a good deal for students, families, Ontario communities, and each other,” Walton concluded. 

Workers’ wage proposal is an increase of $3.25 per hour for a group that’s paid on average only $39,000 per year. The Ford government’s offer was just 33¢ to 53¢ an hour – the equivalent of the cost of less than one tank of gas per month.