You hear the chant at almost every education demonstration: Cuts hurt kids. Any illusion that these words are just sloganeering evaporated on a December morning last year, when cuts almost killed one Ontario child.
The seven-year-old student at Guardian Angels school in Orillia was helping the principal and another student move a piano. The piano got caught on an edge on the floor and tipped over, pinning the boy against a doorframe.
The boy had severe head injuries, and was airlifted to Toronto for treatment. He is recovering from the accident, but CUPE members who work for the school board say staffing cuts caused a situation that could have been a much bigger tragedy.
The school used to have two custodians – one on a split shift, and one who came in for two hours in the afternoon to help with cleanup. The board eliminated the two-hour position, forcing the other custodian to shorten his morning shift so he could do all the cleaning by himself at the end of the day.
“Accidents do happen,” says Gerald Frank. “But if the custodian had been on site, those kids would never have been asked to move the piano.” Frank is a chief custodian and president of CUPE 3987, representing custodians at the Simcoe Muskoka District Catholic School Board.
“Our local went to the board just days before the accident, asking them to reinstate the two-hour position. They turned us down, and said that based on the square footage, the school only needed one custodian,” says Frank.
“The board has since accused us of using this as a bargaining tool. Well, no-one’s going to do that to this kid. But we have to tell the story. Parents weren’t even aware of the change in staffing,” he says.
Learning to do more with less
The accident shows just how critical the balance is for CUPE education workers across the country. Budgets have been cut to the bone. And often one small cut is all it takes to trigger a full-blown crisis in an already fragile system.
From kindergarten class to post-graduate studies, public education is under attack. Cutbacks, contracting out and privatization threaten the quality of education. CUPE education workers asked to do more with less are struggling with unmanageable workloads. And education workers, students and parents are fighting to rebuild a strong network that supports students and communities.
Diversity and equity under attack
In Nova Scotia province-wide education cuts meant Halifax Regional School Board slashed $11.5 million from its budget, leaving about 400 members of CUPE 108 with layoff notices. Among those targeted were education support workers, library workers and student support workers.
While all three groups faced layoffs, only one group faced elimination – the student support workers.
The 16 student support workers, 15 of whom are Black, work with students at risk of dropping out of school. Many of the students they work with are also Black. The local sprang into action, winning a key victory when Halifax municipal council increased its funding to the school board and tied the increase to restoring CUPE 108 jobs.
The school board has responded by hiring back some workers. But 140 workers will still lose their jobs – and of the 16 student support workers, only five are being kept on.
“The board can’t say they cut us for economic reasons. Support workers are the best bang they get for the buck,” says student support worker Wendell Thomas.
“So why did they try to eliminate a program that parents and students were clamouring for? It’s racism, pure and simple.”
Thomas helps students dealing with everything from racism to suicide prevention to drug abuse, sexual abuse and teen pregnancy. His job description includes acting as a positive role model for youth at risk. And last year’s grade nine yearbook dedication at Thomas’ school shows the impact he has.
“The students dedicated the yearbook to me and the guidance counsellor, saying we were more than teachers, we were friends. That’s what it’s all about. A lot of us are former children’s aid workers who could be making more money elsewhere. We’re here for another reason.”
Thomas is both baffled and insulted that the school board hasn’t provided a single reason for cutting all 16 positions, and then reinstating only five.
“They obviously haven’t learned any lessons from Cole Harbour. The monster continues,” he says, referring to 1997 race riots which shut down a Halifax-area high school, ironically after the student support workers in the county had been eliminated.
“The school board’s answer was to hire security guards. That’s not prevention. That’s institutionalization. You can’t just lock people up. You have to do the work,” says Thomas.
The remaining five support workers won’t be able to cover all the schools the 16 workers had. “We have to be site-based, so we can build rapport. So some schools won’t have any workers this fall,” says Thomas. “And that’s a tragedy.”
In Toronto, Black cultural and African heritage instructor Murphy Browne is feeling the effects of cuts first hand. The school she worked at has been closed, ending her after-school course.
“The course shows the richness and diversity of Black history. Our history didn’t start with slavery. Teaching those stories gives African kids a sense of self, because they aren’t represented at all in the curriculum,” says Browne, a member of CUPE 4400.
Children of all races are welcome in the program. “When kids can see that people of African descent aren’t what they are portrayed as on TV and elsewhere, it has a very positive impact on all of the kids,” says Browne, who still has a one-hour shift as a lunchroom supervisor.
“Kids who were stigmatized as bad and disruptive in the regular classroom really blossomed in the course. Some came in September or October who were timid and wouldn’t say a word. They got so interested, they started asking for more work. How often do you hear a child asking ‘when are we going to do more history?’ ”
Another part-time Black cultural instructor’s after-school program has been discontinued because fewer than 25 children had registered. The minimums are a new rule – and they’re killing English as a Second Language programs as well as the Black cultural program.
“The after school program is so fragile that it takes very little to destroy it,” says Browne, adding that the only course that had been integrated into the day program at a school has been cut.
“There is a discomfort at a certain level with kids learning about people of African descent. It’s systemic racism that this program is being targeted,” says Browne. “It’s scary, sad and disheartening. Parents are so discouraged with everything that’s happened with this mean-spirited government.”
Program cuts in the Black cultural and African heritage program and the English as a Second Language program mean that Toronto workers of colour and other equity seekers, who hold many of these jobs, having been the last hired are the first fired.
The cuts are also a major blow for recent immigrants and refugees. “You’re not only teaching people English, and about Canada, you’re also helping them go through the emotional trauma of relocation,” says ESL instructor Gay Bell, also a CUPE 4400 member.
Bell’s summer class was cut this year because last summer’s class – taught by a different teacher in a different time period – didn’t have enough students to meet the board’s minimum. Bell says the board is also limiting who’s eligible to get into ESL courses. That means different levels of learners are being put into the same class, frustrating both the new and more advanced students.
“You need to meet students at the right level. Otherwise they get isolated and depressed. And a lot of students don’t function well unless they are in small groups or get individual attention. People have had very traumatic experiences, and won’t open up in a big class,” she says.
ESL programs help integrate immigrants into the community, says Bell. As one recent example, a mother came to class upset because her son had fought with another child who had insulted him because he didn’t speak English.
“She was humiliated and devastated, and terribly worried that her son can’t speak English. I can help her to understand what happened, and to teach her son what to say if kids make fun of him. It’s a huge support role.”
Bell and fellow instructor Norman Beach have encouraged their students to organize to fight cuts to ESL. Students are free to draw their own conclusions, but when Bell and her students mapped out the cuts in a wall mural, the cuts spoke for themselves.
“When you come in and show the news of the cuts, they just can’t believe it. They came here expecting a country that would welcome and support them and use their skills to help build a society. The emotional strain of going through their disillusionment is huge. You hope they come out the other end fighting,” says Bell.
“We’ve been under pressure to teach special courses on how to find a job,” says Beach. “The Ontario government wants to train new immigrants to be good little cogs in the industrial machine.”
Beach’s students aren’t thinking cogs – they’re forming councils. Several ESL student councils have sprung up, and are speaking out to save their programs.
“Most of the students haven’t received their citizenship, and think speaking out will jeopardize their chances. I’ve taught them it’s okay to speak out. It’s really about teaching so much more than language,” says Beach.
Bargaining to end contracting out
In Manitoba, coming to the bargaining table with a water-tight case helped bring contracted-out sweeper positions into CUPE 3305.
“The bathrooms were disgusting, and for what the board was paying, it was ludicrous,” says local president Wendy Wellborn, a teachers’ attendant in the Dauphin Ochre school district.
The sweeper positions had always been contracted out, which meant there’d always been problems.
“They’d sweep the middle of the floor and leave stuff in the corners. And they weren’t on site, so you couldn’t ask them to come back and fix it. We told the board that if it was in-house, they’d have much more control over the cleaning,” says Wellborn.
The union also told the board that by using a contractor, they were stuck with long contracts that were hard to break. She says the cleaning has improved since the work came in-house.
The last round of negotiations brought three sweepers into the union, and when the local’s contract expires in December, Wellborn’s goal is to bring more sweepers in and work to improve their wages.
“For now, they have seniority and job protection. And the employer wanted to pay them $6 an hour. We didn’t let that happen,” she say.
In North Vancouver, closing and contracting out the school district’s central stores is proving to be a poorly planned move that will end up costing more. The district’s in-house central warehouse, delivery and repair network is being replaced by accounts at office supply mega-stores like Staples and Grand & Toy.
“Closing the central stores means we lose our economies of scale. Now, we have 57 different sites sending in work and orders, and we’re paying extra delivery fees,” says Cindy McQueen, CUPE 389 president. McQueen adds that school secretaries will end up with the extra work of tracking and ordering supplies.
“Because in-house repairs are gone, it’s going to cost $60 at a minimum just to do something like ship an overhead projector out for repair,” says McQueen. The central stores did minor repairs of school equipment – often catching small problems or user errors.
McQueen says the local estimates the change could cost the school district $300,000 more than the central stores.
No more P3 schools
A victory on P3 schools in Nova Scotia shows the importance of continuing to fight – even if privatization has started.
In June, the provincial government abandoned expensive and unpopular public private partnership schools, and announced that 17 new schools would be publicly financed and owned.
“It proved what we were saying all along. From all the cost over-runs, they could have built a whole other school,” says CUPE Nova Scotia president Betty Jean Sutherland.
“The level of community turmoil was so high. It was about much more than just cost overruns,” she adds.
“The P3 pushers are now trying to convince people there will be inequities in the schools, and that the new public schools won’t have the same bells and whistles as the P3 schools. Well, we’re ready for that argument. And besides, when some of these so-called new technologies don’t even work, what’s the point?”
In Alberta, the recent construction of a Calgary public school by a private developer to be leased back to the Calgary Board of Education and talks of building a school in a Calgary shopping mall are setting off alarm bells, says CUPE 474 president Doug Luellman.
“Now, the Edmonton public school board has been approached by parents and developers with a P3 plan to build a school in a suburban neighbourhood despite the fact there is an under-used school in the neighbourhood. They too are being pressured into public private partnerships by the funding conditions of the Alberta Infrastructure School Innovation Fund,” says Luellman.
The $10 million fund provides matching funds for building new schools when school boards “partner” with the private sector – in this case developers who are creating housing projects in new suburban districts of the city.
“The simple fact is that this slush fund has been created to promote the further privatization of public education while not addressing the need for secure full government funding to repair schools,” says Luellman.
Luellman’s local and the Edmonton Public School Board undertook a two year pilot project that proved privatization and contracting out of custodial services wasn’t as cost effective or efficient as unionized, in-house custodial workers.
“A recent air quality study by a University of Calgary environmental engineering professor also found that custodial staff are crucial to maintaining a healthy environment in schools. That fact is still being ignored by the Alberta Government which is pushing for further cuts to school maintenance costs and promoting P3’s with its innovation fund,” says Luellman.
The failure of P3 schools in Nova Scotia will provide further ammunition to CUPE members in their fight against P3 schools.
Sutherland says one of CUPE Nova Scotia’s next big challenges is school bus privatization. Despite a very public and successful fight to keep school bus services in-house in one region, some school boards are still pushing privatization. She says one of the key players, a private bus company from Newfoundland, is anti-union and is expecting bus drivers in Kings County to take a 60 per cent pay cut.
“The company’s promised over a hundred experienced drivers for September, and they don’t even have a third of that yet. Our drivers wouldn’t take back their jobs for 60 per cent less pay. The driver’s examiner says private drivers are failing. How on earth are they going to get it together by the fall? They simply aren’t.”
Nova Scotia school custodians also have a fight on their hands after a brutal provincial budget slashed public services, including $20 million from public schools.
“We know there are schools that probably won’t be fit to open in September because they won’t have been cleaned all summer,” Sutherland says, pointing to a huge health and safety hazard for students and school workers.
Support staff carrying a heavy workload have less time to contribute to school life. Rob Kearns, a computer technician with the London District Catholic School Board and CUPE 4186 member, used to help coach after school sports.
“I’m being asked to do more and more in seven short hours a day. To then coach at the end of the day – the energy just isn’t there anymore mentally and physically,” says Kearns, who adds he also wanted to show solidarity with teachers, who are in a battle with the Harris Tories over mandatory after-school activities.
Stress is a fact of life for school secretaries in New Brunswick. Here, the province-wide CUPE school board local is planning a workload study, after a study in one region revealed that hours of work are being steadily cut back while workloads increase.
“Amalgamation and new technology mean work is being downloaded onto secretaries. For example, accounting has come from the school district to the school secretaries,” says CUPE 2745 president Sherry Wilkins.
On top of that, secretaries have no prep time before staff come back in September, and have no wrap-up time at school year end.
“You can be working for 400 or 500 kids, plus all the specialists and everyone who calls, plus the admininstration work, on top of the teachers you’re supposed to be working for.”
Wilkins says school secretaries have many roles and responsibilities – and they’re having a hard time keeping up.
“In high school, you’re signing students in and out all the time, keeping track of them. In elementary and middle school you’re their mother, their nurse and so much more. We’re just rushing from one job to another. We don’t have time to do a proper job.”
Safety is a big worry, says Wilkins.
“In some schools, they are using answering machines. That is terrible. If I’m a parent, I don’t want to talk to a machine – especially if there’s an emergency. I want to talk to a real, live person.”
CUPE members took their concerns to the minister of education in the spring, calling for more hours of work.
“His response was, ‘If I have any extra money, it won’t be [used for] more hours for school secretaries,’ ” says Wilkins. So the local’s taking their campaign to the next level with leafleting and phoning around to parents and community members planned for the fall.
Toronto District School Board secretaries, members of CUPE 4400, presented trustees with bread and roses at a special secretaries’ week forum in April.
“They gave the trustees and the director a sense of just how bad it is. They couldn’t stand the workload as it was, and the board was looking at a new staffing formula that would make it worse,” says CUPE 4400 vice president Debbie Oldfield.
“We’re so busy, secretaries in elementary schools are having a hard time checking up on children who aren’t at school in the morning. The thought of your kid not getting to school is pretty scary,” says Oldfield.
School secretaries have access to important information about the children in their schools, she says. In one recent case, a father showed up at school to pick up his child even though he’d been denied access in a custody dispute. “The secretary knew something was wrong, checked the child’s file and intervened with the principal. Those are the things that will get lost when you’re too busy,” says Oldfield.
Like the New Brunswick secretaries, downloading is rampant. Payroll, purchasing and human resources functions have all landed in the laps of CUPE 4400 secretaries. “Some of these functions, like payroll, have deadlines. So you just have to do them,” says Oldfield.
Stress levels rise as secretaries are being worked to distraction. “A number of schools, especially elementary ones, are one-secretary schools. If you’re trying to do all of it alone, you can start one job and you maybe go back to it four hours later – if you even remember what it was you were doing,” says Oldfield, who has experienced exactly this as a school secretary.
Oldfield says the board may cut as many as 70 secretaries – but that’s still less than what the province wants. “If the board went for what the province said they could afford, they’d be cutting many more.”
“Parents are starting now to notice the changes,” says Oldfield. The board is also cutting central administration staff, which will mean more admin work will be downloaded to school secretaries, compounding any secretary cuts.
Oldfield says the local will make secretary workloads a key issue in the current round of bargaining that began in August. The local is also developing a survey to find out how much extra time school secretaries are logging.
“Secretaries are putting in a huge amout of overtime, working through their lunches and breaks and working after school. People are calling me in tears, saying they can’t do their job anymore and that they feel inadequate,” she says.
The secretaries are drawing strength from the new mega-local. “It really was uniting for the secretaries to find common issues. They’ve developed a network, and it’s given them hope and strength that they can actually do something.”
Strength in numbers
Coming together and building strength was the idea behind CUPE’s province wide K-12 bargaining in British Columbia.
“After two rounds of bargaining under wage controls, we realized free collective bargaining was dead for us as a local,” says Terry Allen, president of CUPE 379 in Burnaby and a member of the provincial bargaining committee made up of 47 CUPE kindergarten to grade twelve locals. “Only as a larger group would we be able to move forward beyond the zero, zero and two we were getting.”
Though some of the contract language is still being finalized, members have much to be proud of says Marilyn Hannah, president of CUPE 3742 in Prince George and a bargaining committee member. “We got a damn good contract in the end. Not without a huge fight, but we got it.”
“We’ve achieved things we never thought were possible,” says Allen.
Province-wide bargaining was initially supported by the provincial minister of education, but at the last minute the government pulled legislation that forced the employer to bargain with CUPE school support workers as a provincial body. In the resulting chaos, talks ground to a halt.
After more than a year and a half of organizing and bargaining that took thousands of hours and ended with 15,000 striking workers being legislated back after a week long strike, BC school support workers finally have a new collective agreement.
CUPE members stood firm on their right to vote on the final agreement, even though it was being imposed on them. “By voting on the contract members got a chance to regain their voice,” says Hannah.
Key gains include improved job security, a plan to achieve pay equity, a wage increase, some contracting out protection and a minimum four-hour shift. “We had a member that had a job that was three 15-minute shifts a week. Others were working seven and 10 hours a week. A four-hour minimum gives our members stability and the sense of having a real job. It also gives them full benefits, which is a huge improvement. And it also means reduced paperwork – some of our members were carrying around three or four time sheets,” says Hannah.
The new agreement will help keep some maintenance work in-house, says CUPE 459 president Anne Bell representing workers with the Sooke School District who also sat on the province-wide bargaining committee. Before, any capital project budgeted at over $100,000 was automatically contracted out. Under the new contract, that ceiling is now $250,000.
“The board can now use its own workers, where before renovating three classrooms could cost more than $100,000, so it would automatically be contracted out. This means more work for our maintenance members,” she says.
While the province-wide agreement has some improvements, Hannah says she and her members are confronting deep cuts at the local level. “The cuts are just huge. We have over 450 layoff notices in clerical, meal program workers, teaching assistants and custodians.”
Hannah says she’s outraged the board is putting $2 million a year into technology for the next five years, while at the same time nine social workers got layoff notices.
“Prince George has one of the highest alcoholism rates in the country. These social workers make such a difference to children in crisis. The problems are just horrific. But technology is the buzzword these days.”
Volunteers in schools is another unresolved issue for CUPE both provincially and locally. Employers and the media manipulated and distorted CUPE’s position on volunteers during the strike in an attempt to drive a wedge between parents and school support workers.
“We still have to work on this,” says Hannah. “CUPE has never, ever been against volunteers. Our school district wouldn’t function without volunteers doing things like science fairs, Christmas concerts, field trips, bike safety programs, and special art projects. But we don’t need them doing phoning and photocopying.”
As a school secretary, Hannah has run a ‘Safe Start’ program since 1982. If a child doesn’t come to school in the morning, Hannah immediately phones home to make sure there isn’t a problem. In some schools, a parent volunteer does this job.
“There’s a total lack of confidentiality. You’re calling places where there may be a death in the family, or a parent in distress or some other crisis. Parents shouldn’t be doing this.”
Back to school and fighting back
As CUPE members return to schools across Canada, they’re continuing to fight cutbacks, contracting out and privatization by organizing, bargaining and picketing.
In London, Ontario, the fightback is a joint one. Two school board locals, CUPE 4186 and CUPE 4222, have set up a joint anti-privatization committee. Support workers at the London District Catholic School Board and the Thames Valley School Board will be reaching out to the community this fall, building the campaign against corporate schools and contracted-out services.
The anti-privatization committee is highlighted on CUPE 4186’s web site. Rob Kearns, who set up the web site, says it’s a new way to reach both members and the broader community.
Kearns says his local, a product of amalgamation, has come a long way in building solidarity, but still has challenges like increasing attendance at membership meetings.
He’s convinced that one of the solutions is increasing communication with members.
“We need to make these issues important to people. That means trying everything to reach them,” he says. “Whether it’s member-to-member or through the web site, we need to do it.”
Whether it’s building community support for school secretaries in New Brunswick, building the case for contracting in services in Manitoba, creating a new local web site in London, Ontario or building diversity in Nova Scotia schools, CUPE members are on the front line fighting for quality public education.
As privatization schemes like Nova Scotia’s overpriced P3 schools continue to founder, the privateers will find themselves on increasingly shaky ground. CUPE continues to play a leading role in exposing privatization scams.
When the privateers gather in Toronto next month to talk about the $2 trillion education market, CUPE members will be there to blow the whistle on the corporate carve-up of public education. And as governments continue to hack school budgets, CUPE will continue to exert the pressure that’s needed to win renewed and increased funding for public education and all public services.
We have the membership strength. We have the community support. We have the dirt on privatization and contracting out. Watch out, privateers and cost-cutting employers….the back-to-school fightback is only just beginning!