Ontario Premier Doug Ford sent a message Thursday to education workers who voted in favour of a strike: “Don’t force my hand.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees announced earlier this week that its members, such as early childhood educators, custodians and administration staff, voted 96.5 per cent in favour of a strike.
Ford was asked at a news conference Thursday if he would legislate them back to work in the event of a stoppage. He said he won’t “budge” on wanting to keep classrooms free of disruptions.
“To the unions, the teachers unions: please don’t go on strike. Don’t force my hand,” Ford said. “I’m a strong believer in negotiating, but do not, do not go on strike.”
CUPE represents education workers and school support staff, not teachers. They include education assistants, early childhood educators, library workers, custodians, social workers and administrative assistants among many other roles.
CUPE’s 55,000 education workers have never all been on strike over the central collective agreement, the union said, although some local chapters have walked off the job in the past.
It’s unclear exactly what strike action would look like, if it takes place. Previous job action in the education sector has taken the form of work-to-rule, rolling and intermittent strikes, and a full withdrawal of services.
Ford said his words were not a threat to education workers.
“What I said was, ‘Please, and I’m begging you, don’t go on strike,'” he said.
He said parents and children have been through a lot over the past two years when the province closed physical schools for weeks and months at a time due to the pandemic.
“What we’re focusing on is making sure that the students are in the classrooms,” he said.
CUPE was set to bargain Thursday and Friday with the government and the union has said the two days of talks would be key in determining next steps.
Union’s proposals are reasonable, president says
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions said in a statement Thursday that the union’s proposals are reasonable, necessary and affordable, and Ford has the power to accept them today.
“If he does that, the lowest paid education workers who are paid on average only $39,000 a year won’t have to strike to make ends meet and to defend services for students from Ford’s cuts,” she wrote.
The government has offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all other workers, while CUPE is looking for annual increases of 11.7 per cent.
CUPE has said the government’s offer amounts to an extra $800 a year for the average worker.
The government has said CUPE also wants five additional paid days before the start of the school year, an increase to overtime pay from a multiplier of 1.5 to 2 and 30 minutes of paid preparation time each day.
The four major teachers’ unions are also at various stages of bargaining after contracts expired Aug. 31, but none has taken a strike vote.