On Sunday, Oct. 6, a potential strike involving 55,000 public education workers in Ontario was averted following a late-night deal between the Ford government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Education Minister Stephen Lecce immediately tried to take credit for his government, saying, 

“Parents can rest easy knowing that the Government worked tirelessly to ensure their children remain in the classroom, where they belong… we can all leave this deal knowing we’ve achieved some incremental success…” 

On the other end, Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board of Councils of Unions (OSBCU), said,

“I think the pressure that we applied, the fact that we were going to be going out on strike – a full withdrawl of services – made the difference this weekend.” 

When asked if the province caved in the negotiations, Walton said, “[they] met us where they needed to be in order to get a deal,” and that the union, “didn’t give up anything.” 

What did CUPE gain?

The full terms of the deal were not made immediately available, but some major points have been revealed before 55,000 CUPE education staff vote to ratify the deal by the end of October.

According to the released stipulations, job protection was won with $20 million per year for three years on 300 full-time equivalent CUPE jobs across the province. It also included an agreement to restore the “local priorities fund” of $58.3 million per year for three years which would restore more than 1,000 CUPE jobs. 

In terms of compensation, CUPE employees only get a one per cent increase per year for three years. This is a concession by CUPE to Ford’s one per cent pay cap which must be fought tooth and nail. This concession is significant as CUPE education workers are still among the lowest paid with an average salary of $38,000 a year.

Sick leave was an issue that gained much media attention. The result was an important victory as the Tories wanted to remove two sick days and reduce short-term disability to 60 per cent of pay. After a campaign of demonizing CUPE workers, both cuts were defeated. The Ford government conceded the status quo with 11 sick days at 100 per cent pay and 120 short-term leave days at 90 per cent pay.

In terms of job security, CUPE and the Ford government agreed to include a “side letter” in the contract which stipulates that unless there are major economic changes, a dramatic drop in student population, or major changes in funding, the current complement of employees (55,000) will remain for the course of the contract. This is another win for CUPE but the workers must be careful about the small print.

Stage set for the teachers

The reinstatement of CUPE positions and the stop to general cuts is a significant victory. It sets the stage for the 150,000 teachers with the OSSTF and ETFO who are in the midst of negotiations with the government, with the possibility of strike action. The teachers face significant class size hikes and 10,000 layoffs over five years which has already sparked a backlash, which itself fed into the significant public support for CUPE education workers. Ford is initiating one of the worst attacks on workers in Ontario since Mike Harris’s cuts and austerity of the 1990s.

One significant element in the contract that CUPE could have done more to oppose was the Ford government’s one per cent wage cap. There was an even greater impetus to resist the pay cap, as prior to the Sunday deal, the Ford government had already capitulated on a $67 million cut to social assistance, bowing to pressure from the public. This is within the context of the government’s general nosedive in approval ratings. On Sunday, parents rallied outside the negotiations room where CUPE and management were in talks. Countless examples of solidarity have flooded social media with the hashtags #NoCutsToEducation, #OntClassSizes, #CutsHurtKids and other examples. The Ford government has clearly become unpopular, especially as a result of attacking CUPE support workers and staff. 

This level of public support and solidarity has not been seen for a long time when public education workers have been in a strike position in Ontario. It signifies a clear balance of power in favour of working class Ontarians over Ford and his friends. The labour movement must grasp this opportunity now while the Ford government is weak and organize further actions to stop his other cuts. There is an old saying in the labour movement that weakness invites aggression. For too long the labour movement has been on the weak side, now is the time to aggressively fight back against this weak Ford regime: the teachers are up next.