Jesse Mintz | CUPE Staff
Ken Marciniec | CUPE Staff

With 55,000 education workers in Ontario currently at the bargaining table for a new central collective agreement, Laura Walton finds herself reminiscing about her father. As a school principal, he pulled out of his bargaining unit during the bad old days of Premier Mike Harris. He walked the picket lines in solidarity with his staff.

“They fought so hard,” says Walton. “I won’t let us go back to where we started with governments dismantling our system, cutting, chipping away bit by bit.”

Educational assistants (EAs), early childhood educators (ECEs), custodians, maintenance staff, office secretaries, music, and language instructors – all members of the Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU-CUPE) – are fighting to improve the working and learning conditions in Ontario’s schools. Their proposals are reasonable, necessary, and affordable, and would guarantee real gains for workers and students.

It is a fight Walton is ready for. An Educational Assistant and president of the OSBCU, Walton speaks about what drew her to union organizing, the impact of a decade of wage cuts, and the future of the sector for young workers.

Question 1

Why did you become an Educational Assistant (EA)?

Education is a part of my family. My grandmother was a school secretary. My dad was a principal. My stepmother and uncle were teachers. I knew I wanted to work in schools, but I came up in the 90s when there was a glut of teachers and no teaching jobs. So, I worked other jobs to put myself through university, and when I was pregnant with my daughter, I trained to be an EA.

I always knew I wanted to work with kids. And I loved it, I really loved it. I worked with extremely behaviourally challenged teenagers, many coming out of the criminal justice system and trying to transition back to school. It was rewarding. But I was also working other jobs just to make ends meet. That is when I went to my first union meeting.

Question 2

What does it mean to have a sustainable job as an education worker?

It is everyone’s dream – but it should be everyone’s reality. Instead, we have uncertainty. In the first few years of education work, it is common to move from school to school. Teachers can spend their entire career in one school, they can put down roots. But EAs, ECEs, custodians, office secretaries – all of us face a question during the summer of whether we will be back in our schools or not in the fall. That level of uncertainty takes a toll on workers.

There is also the question of wages and inflation. How can you sustain yourself and your family, how can you pay for rent or a mortgage, food, and gas, let alone extra-curriculars for your own kids, on these salaries?

More than half our members have second jobs. They do child care at the local YMCA before or after school. They tutor. They work in restaurants. They cobble together enough other work to supplement a job they love, a job they find meaning in, because their main job as an education worker doesn’t pay them enough.

My first four years as an EA, I worked at Sears for the benefits. I would work to 9 p.m. every night and barely get time with my own kids. That is not sustainable.

Question 3

What is the impact on young workers? And what role do school boards play in this crisis of retention and recruitment?

That lack of sustainability is the reason a lot of people don’t stick it out. They love the work, like I do, like so many do, but they leave the field. Why would they stay?

Governments and employers have devalued this work, primarily done by women. But these women know their value. They know they are worth more than near poverty wages. They say to themselves, ‘If I am going to be a gig worker, I will at least do it on my own terms, not the school board’s.’

We can’t keep young people in these jobs if we don’t make them careers people can be proud of – careers people can sustain a family with.

Besides, school boards haven’t reacted in time to a changing reality. They are used to being draws. They are used to having applicants line up for jobs. And they thought the applicants would always be there.

Well, we have been telling them for years that these jobs are not sustainable and now they are waking up to a staff retention and recruitment problem. Now they don’t have nearly enough people applying and they don’t have people staying in roles. Meanwhile, we are doing the heavy lifting, asking for more money from the government to make these jobs more sustainable.

Question 4

Understaffing is also a major issue in bargaining. How does understaffing affect the services you can provide students?

This is one of the pieces we don’t talk about enough. The pandemic made people start to appreciate the work of custodians and maintenance staff, keeping schools clean and safe. But that is just the start.

We have schools that used to have four clerical staff and are now down to one secretary. The workload hasn’t changed. If anything, the demands have only increased. But that one person has to do it alone.

My last year in the classroom, I had a reoccurring alarm every 15 minutes. That is how long I could dedicate to each student. And these were students who deeply needed the one-on-one attention. They needed it for much longer than a few minutes, but I just couldn’t give it to them. I had to run from class to class, covering the entire primary wing.

I had parents getting frustrated that they weren’t seeing the growth they expected in their child. And I understood, I was frustrated too. We couldn’t take the time to do the good work that we knew would make an impact. And it has only gotten worse.

Question 5

What do Doug Ford’s government’s proposals indicate to you about where their values lie?

Their values aren’t in our schools. They are not with our dedicated education workers. And they are certainly not with students. They want to offload the hard work of education onto parents, giving parents a small stipend to find a tutor.

This is a government abdicating responsibility to provide a publicly funded and publicly delivered education. Instead, they are forcing parents to source an education like it is a toy off Amazon. That is not sustainable. It is not good for students. And it is not fair to workers. Good education is not cheap and cheap education is not good.

Question 6

Why is it important for you and your colleagues to fight for more sustainable jobs at the bargaining table?

Because it is long overdue. And we owe it not just to ourselves and to future education workers, but to the students and to the families who depend on us.

For far too long, workers have thought that someone else will fight for them. They have thought they can rely on the court system, or the political system, or the bargaining team they elect to negotiate their collective agreement. Nothing in my 20 years here has shown me that any of those mechanisms will work if you don’t fight. No one will save us unless we fight ourselves – each one of us, together.