All schools in both the Lambton-Kent District School Board and St. Clair Catholic District School board will be closed Friday, officials have confirmed.
“Although earlier in the day there was some hope for an eleventh hour agreement in the dispute between the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario government, we are now aware that talks have broken off,” St. Clair Catholic School board education director Scott Johnson stated in a news release, Thursday.
“This means CUPE education workers across the province will not report for work tomorrow… without the in-school support of our CUPE staff, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board cannot ensure learning environments will remain safe and clean for all students and staff.
“The Board has no option but to close schools to all students tomorrow,” he continued. “Again, we do not take this decision lightly; however, student supervision, safety and wellbeing are the Board’s first priority.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants, secretaries, library and computer technicians and other school-based and central staff members.
Lambton-Kent District School Board director John Howitt added, “The LKDSB is hopeful for a resolution in a timely manner.”
Both boards noted that, should the strike continue into next week, schools will remain closed, with plans underway for a switch to remote learning.
The French language Catholic school board (Conseil Scolaire Catholique Providence), which represents École élémentaire catholique Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin and École secondaire catholique Saint-François-Xavier, plans to offer distance learning to all elementary and secondary students.
Earlier this week, officials with the French-language public school board, Conseil Scolaire Viamonde, told parents to expect schools to remain open. That includes Les Rapides Elementary School and École Secondaire Franco-Jeunesse.
Meanwhile, the Keeping Students in Class Act passed Thursday in the Ontario legislature. Known as Bill 28, it imposes a contract on CUPE’s education workers and legally prevents them from striking.
The union says it will fight the bill, but the government says it intends to use the notwithstanding clause to keep the eventual law in force despite any constitutional challenges.
The unusual move by the government has many labour and parent groups throwing their support behind CUPE, Michele LaLonge Davey told The Journal earlier this week. She’s president of CUPE Local 1238, which represents about 1,000 permanent and occasional employees with the Lambton Kent District School Board.
A rally organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour was held Tuesday in front of MPP Bob Bailey’s offices, while the federation held similar emergency rallies throughout the province demanding that the government gets its “hands off workers’ rights.”
“I believe the Ontario government has taken it all to a new level,” LaLonge Davey said. “It is way over the top. Why can’t we just continue to bargain?”
CUPE had set aside this week at the bargaining table to find a solution before Friday and avert a strike, she said this week. “We are getting support from all over, including from Prime Minister Trudeau, because this goes well beyond bargaining in good faith. It’s a rights issue and it’s not just stepping on our rights, it’s a big, big trampling.
“If the government can do it to us, who’s next? I feel like we are standing up for all workers’ rights.”
Ontario’s education workers represented by CUPE have been without a contract since Aug. 31 and have been trying to improve their working conditions on numerous fronts at the bargaining table. Wages, service security, benefits and staffing levels are among the key issues. But the most critical one is hiring and retention, said Lalonge Davey.
“Locally, our boards haven’t reduced CUPE members but it has happened across the province,” she said.
Wages for education workers in Ontario are also a sticking point.
The last three increases have been one per cent annually and the union is looking for increases closer to 11% a year.
“Our lowest level members are clerical positions and elementary supervision support who make $19.79 an hour,” said Lalonge Davey. “We’ve got members who have to use the food bank or get gas money from the union so they can drive to work. I am just dumbfounded that the government is treating families and students like this…we are really good workers and the kids need us.”
With files from Cathy Dobson.