This profile is intended to provide CUPE members with basic information about the sector they work in from a national perspective.
More than half of all education workers across Canada are CUPE members. CUPE represents 131,000 workers in elementary and secondary schools across Canada in every classification in the school system – except teachers and management – in over 400 education bargaining units.
From almost 55,000 members in Ontario to representing 100 per cent of the education workers in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, CUPE’s Education Sector remains one of the strongest in Canada. We represent the full range of support staff classifications in nearly every province.
Funding increases have not kept up with the costs of providing education and maintenance demands, leaving school boards under enormous pressure. Real per-student funding in Ontario has been cut steadily from 2012-13 to the present. Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding is $1,100 lower today than it was at its peak in 2011-12 – which translates into a $2.5 billion real cut in 2022-23. This has been achieved by keeping wages artificially low through wage restraint legislation and incursions on free collective bargaining. It also puts profound pressure on school boards to understaff and layoffs on a regular basis, resulting in worsening working and learning conditions in Ontario schools.
In other provinces, the situation is similarly dire. In Saskatchewan, the Sask. Party government continues to starve the province’s public education system, allocating a mere 1.5% increase in funding for Saskatchewan’s school divisions in the 2022-2023 budget. Since 2016-17, funding for school divisions has only increased 5.1% while Saskatchewan’s CPI has increased 14.5%. The meagre funding increase, combined with escalating inflationary costs, led many school divisions to announce plans to eliminate teaching, EA and other positions. Some announced plans to introduce noon-hour supervision fees. While the provincial government announced this summer that it would provide an additional $20 million to school divisions to help address rising fuel and insurance costs, to date this has not resulted in any school division reversing any planned job cuts.
In Alberta, public school funding now occurs using a three-year average. If you are in a school district with growing enrolment, you are shorted per student funding. For Edmonton Public this year that new calculation has caused a funding shortage worth 100 students.
In Manitoba, CUPE members and our allies fought back against proposed reforms in the education sector which would eliminate local school boards/trustees, centralized all decision-making with the minister of Education. The proposed measures proved unpopular, and the government was forced to withdraw reforms. Unfortunately, the government’s decision to take taxation powers away from school divisions remains in place, and we fear that as a result we will be facing staff and programing cuts in the sector.
Public dollars going to fund private schools and public-private partnerships (P3) in the education sector is becoming more common in many provinces. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Quebec all provide some public funding for private schools.
Saskatchewan gave a 1.5% increase to their public, Roman Catholic and francophone school divisions, and a 16.7% boost in funding to their private schools (or “qualified independent schools”) in the 2022 budget. The provincial budget also announced plans to create a new “associate” category of qualified independent schools which would boost funding from 50% of the average cost-per-student to 75 per cent.
In Alberta, the UCP continues to facilitate the expansion of charter schools and the erosion of public P-12 education. In March 2022, the UCP announced $25 million of operational funding and $47 million of capital support for charter schools under their Choice in Education Act, taking needed resources away from public education. Sixteen publicly funded charter schools are run in Alberta. Although Alberta is currently the only province in the country where charter schools are allowed, this summer, the polling firm used by Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives was asking Ontarians whether they thought there should be more “choice in education”, including charter schools.
Several governments including Nova Scotia (who have since purchased them back), New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, have built new public schools through expensive P3 deals with for-profit corporations. These schools cost more, are associated with lower quality, have restricted after-hours access, and their design often does not meet the broader community’s needs. CUPE 737 in Manitoba successfully fought against a proposal to build four new schools as P3s with their “raise red flags” on P3 schools campaign in 2018.
CUPE members across the country will continue to defend the public school system and call on governments to take bold action to fund public education adequately and consistently. Instead of using their own manufactured funding gaps to justify giving public dollars to private schools, governments must step up to provide a public school system that meets the needs of our communities.
Violence in schools continues to rise
Most of the public is unaware of the routine violence and threats experienced by education workers who deal directly with students. But our members are acutely aware of it. CUPE locals are pursuing better training and reporting mechanisms and enforcing members’ rights under occupational health and safety acts.
Covering the early years
Starting public education at a younger age offers improved child development and well-being, women’s equality and employment, higher-quality care, and better jobs for child care workers. In 2021, the government of PEI and Newfoundland expanded their public education system to include the early learning years (ages 4 and 5). PEI currently offers 15 hours a week of pre-kindergarten programming out of child care centres. Newfoundland is currently piloting a pre-Kindergarten program at 35 YMCAs.
In 2019, the CAQ government passed legislation to make pre-kindergarten available to four-year-olds across Quebec. Unlike other provinces, Quebec’s existing subsidized daycare network meant that this move simply created an unnecessary parallel system while adding further funding strains and higher student-teacher ratio in Quebec’s schools.
CUPE members in education are fighting back after years of austerity and wage freezes. In 2021, New Brunswick education workers joined the province wide CUPE strike to demand that their pay at least keep pace with inflation and close the gap created by the government after years of being underpaid.
In Ontario, education members have been subjected to Bill 124 which froze their wage increases at just 1% a year. In 2022, CUPE ON launched the campaign “$39,000 is not enough” reflecting the average income of a CUPE worker in the K-12 school system.
In BC, education workers secured an addition $0.25 per hour wage increase plus an additional 3.24% for 2022, a minimum increase of 5.5% up to 6.74% for 2023, and a 2% increase plus 1% for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2024.
In part due to delays in bargaining because of COVID-19, 38 out of 41 of Alberta’s education sector locals are either at the table or heading to the bargaining table. Working together with the support of the Alberta Education Employees Committee members are challenging the government mandate which includes a zero in the first year and 2.25% split over the next two years with a complicated “gain sharing” scenario worth a paltry 0.5% if the GDP is higher than predicted by a significant amount in the second year. Members in Alberta have had 8-10 years of zeros and they are fed up with conservative wage mandates that will put them further behind. Members have agreed not to take the mandate at the table and are working hard to support one another to break the mandate.
After years of austerity bargaining in Saskatchewan, most education locals have been able to negotiate collective agreements providing for 2% of annual wage increases in the last two years. A handful of locals have been able to negotiate paid pandemic leave provisions.
Saskatchewan is one of the few provinces without any form of central bargaining for support workers. In recent years, there has been some effort made to align expiry dates. On August 31, 2022, 10 CUPE education collective agreements expired. Altogether, these 10 agreements cover 4,000 of CUPE’s 7,000 education support workers in the province. Given the continued underfunding of the education sector, and skyrocketing inflation, it will be extremely challenging for CUPE locals to negotiate wage increases that keep up with the rising cost of living.
In Manitoba, education workers were subject to wage freeze legislation. However, through coordinated bargaining, and in the case of Local 1630 a four-month-long winter strike, CUPE was successful in achieving modest wage increases in each year of the contract, including COLA in the last year of the deal.
Over 90 per cent of CUPE members in the school board sector are covered by defined benefit pension plans, and virtually all CUPE members in the sector have access to a pension. Members in Manitoba have been pushing employers to adopt defined benefit plans to replace the inferior defined contribution plans that are widespread in the sector. We are hopeful that with the election of a NDP government in 2023 that there will be an opportunity to transition Manitoba school board workers into a defined benefit pension plan.
A significant development in Ontario was the establishment of the CUPE Education Workers Benefits Trust (CUPE-EWBT) which took effect in 2018. The trust provides a common benefits plan across the province, funded by the provincial government but administered and controlled by CUPE. It is the second education sector trust in which CUPE is involved, following one established in BC several years ago. In Quebec, most CUPE members in the education sector belong to the FTQ Intersectoral Parity Committee’s multi-union, multi-sector benefits plan.