For months, the Ford government has been threatening education workers with renewed demands for pay cuts, benefit cuts and overall school funding cuts—in a clear demand to make frontline workers pay for the crisis and the government’s corporate subsidy largesse.
Since August, the province has been negotiating new collective agreements with the province’s five education unions: Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario; Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation; Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association; Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens; and CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions.
The school year has already started, but the government is recalcitrant and contracts remain up in the air as, it turns out, workers do not appreciate having their wages and benefits cut.
Lying about education spending
Back in 2019, Education Minister Stephen Lecce claimed that the Ford government’s spending on education, which included steep class size hikes and huge job cuts, was actually an unprecedented investment. While that was transparently false—the government cut education spending as part of its plan to fire thousands of education workers—he has not, it would seem, given up on this talking point.
The planned cuts themselves were largely put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, each time the pandemic eased, such as in early 2021, the government’s plans for multi-billion dollar cuts re-emerged. In response, the province blamed Ontario’s education unions for its own memo laying out its plans to issue “redundancy notices” to thousands of frontline workers.
This time, ahead of bargaining, Lecce released the province’s Plan To Catch Up, touting the government’s supposed intention to make the “highest investment in public education in Ontario’s history.”
However, the same government’s 2022-23 budget estimates appear to show the difference between this year’s expenditure and last year’s is $757,320,400, or roughly 2.86 percent of 2021-22’s total expenditure of $26.326 billion.
That’s well below inflation which is soon expected to reach eight percent.
It does, as well, closely follow the government’s hidden $1.3 billion education spending cut last year—notably attributed to a decline in “non‐government revenue” including fundraising from bake sales and tuition fees from international students.
Offering real pay and benefit cuts
The province’s offer, obtained by PressProgress, would provide frontline workers in CUPE, the first in the negotiating table, wage “increases” between 1.25 and, in rarer cases, two percent—both of which are also well below inflation.
The government’s offer would also cut short-term disability pay from 90 to 25 percent for the first five days (including an application process to access the benefit).
Asked why the offer amounts to a real cut, a spokesperson for the Ontario Public School Board Association declined to comment, remarking only that “This is a complex process with many things going on at once.”
Stephen Lecce is attacking the lowest paid education workers in Ontario, and willing to risk disrupting the school year to do it.— Ontario Parent Action Network (@parentaction4ed) August 22, 2022
Please grab and share this graphic widely in your networks. #OntEd #ONpoli
Making threats ‘philosophically’
Lecce has made much of the government’s intent to “ensur[e] kids are back in school on time.”
On September 3, the minister wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Sun, arguing: “Education unions need to get on board with keeping kids in class without disruption, instead of strikes and withdrawal of services.”
According to CBC News, Lecce would not say if that demand would be backed up by law. But this too would not be the first time his government has subtly threatened to violate education workers’ democratic rights.
Despite provoking massive strikes and protests over his plans to increase class sizes and lay off workers, Ford boasted that he would not “roll over” and “give the unions what they want.”
Asked repeatedly if he would use strikebreaking legislation, Ford later threatened, “There’s only so long my patience can last with the head of the unions… So stay tuned.”
For his part, Lecce has been more discrete, simply saying his condemnation was meant “philosophically”—but the intent is clear.
Ontario’s ‘fiscally sustainable’ future
According to the offer, the government takes the view that its current demand for pay and benefit cuts “reflects a commitment to a fiscally sustainable publicly funded education system.”
In no small part owing to the government’s massive corporate bailout efforts, it now claims to be on the edge of a fiscal disaster. And, it appears, it plans to close that shortfall by cutting education and robbing frontline workers. According to the offer:
These uncertainties combined with the highest debt of any subnational jurisdiction in the world are the key factors for consideration regarding sustainability of labour agreements, not revenue alone as suggested by CUPE/OSBCU. Between 2019-20 and 2022-23, for every additional dollar in revenue, the government spends $1.37. This is going to support health care, education, pandemic recovery, and economic growth. While the Crown and CTA are committed to a fair deal, it must not compromise the fiscal sustainability of the publicly funded education system.
Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office reports the government’s current spending projections will likely lead to a $12.3 billion shortfall over the next decade. If those projections bear out, the office warned, it will mean “significant cuts” to staffing and education programming.
Whatever Lecce may put forward “philosophically,” the situation is clear and it is grim.
The Ford government is pressing ahead with its campaign to attack the education system and those who build and rely on it.
Mitchell Thompson is a writer, editor and occasional radio producer based in Toronto.