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CUPE education workers strike underway

Local education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), other union members, and supporters are on the picket line. 

They’re set up Friday in Parry Sound, Sturgeon Falls, and Powassan. In downtown Parry Sound, by 10:45 AM there were around 60 educational workers and more supporters walking the picket line, going in a circle around James Street and up Seguin Street and Gibson Street. “Our demands are quite simple,” says Wiliam, a local CUPE member and picket captain who asked to only be identified by his first name. 

“We’re asking for 11.7% annually for 3 years, we are asking for our benefits to remain intact. We are willing to negotiate that but the benefits need to stay the same. We are asking for our sick days to remain intact as long with our short-term disability as well,” he says. 

William adds “We are also asking for the right to strike, for the right to bargain with our Collective Agreement as any union’s right. We are also asking for, more importantly than all of these issues, job security and more importantly than that is more jobs in the workplace,”

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According to him, the region has gaps in the schools where there’s no custodian and the principal has to fill in that gap on some occasions. 

“We have [Educational Assistants] that don’t work long enough hours, not because they don’t want to, but because the school doesn’t allow it. We just need more people in the schools to support; how can we support education and support the schools when we don’t have enough people and a long enough time to do so?”

The walkout comes after contract talks with the provincial government broke down this week with the mediator saying the two sides are still too far apart.

The strike, involving 55,000 CUPE members across the province, also comes despite legislation that imposes a contract on the workers and makes the walkout illegal.

William says he does not feel that the workers striking are breaking the law. “If it was breaking the law no unions would have had the right to strike or have collective agreements, period… we are prepared to strike whether it’s illegal or not, we do not feel it is illegal in our opinion and they can fine us if they choose to, but we might not have to pay that either,” he says

Asked how long he thinks the strike will continue, William says everyone walking off the job today would like it to end right now, “we don’t want this to continue quite frankly,” he says. 

“Our anticipation on length is when the Ford government finally realizes that their plan of instituting fines in order to make us stop striking, isn’t going to stop us….we’re hoping that we don’t go more than two weeks but I would say until fines have been issued and they realize that those fines are not being paid and that they keep seeing more and more support,” William says. 

He says originally union members were hoping for less than two weeks, but are prepared to strike as long as possible.

“We might be the first ones through the wringer, but we’re not going to get as bloodied up as they think,” William says.

According to William, the number of people on the picket line in Parry Sound is expected to triple in the next two hours. He says the more support they have the quicker the Ford government will lose this. William urged parents to not support the notwithstanding clause. He says it was used in this particular case as not a way of negotiating with CUPE, but as what he calls a “way of putting the hammer down,”

“And if Ford wants to continue to keep using the hammer to force whatever legislation he wants down on anybody then I say to you parents, what about your jobs next to support your families, it could be you. Wouldn’t you want our support, and we will support you if you go on strike,” he says.

Both the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic and French Catholic boards have said their schools will be open on Friday. The Near North Board says Britt, Mactier, Magnetawan Central, McDougall, Nobel, Parry Sound Public, and Sundridge Centennial schools will be open Friday. The board says Humphrey and Whitestone Lake schools will be closed Friday and Almaguin Highlands and Parry Sound High School will both be open for system classes only. 

The French public board as well as the Trillium Lakelands District School Board and Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board will close their schools Friday and possibly next week as well if CUPE’s strike continues. That includes both St. Peters elementary school and St. Dominic’s in Bracebridge. Officials with the school boards said in separate statements earlier this week that they are not able to operate their schools safely without the striking education workers.

***With files from Richard Coffin and Norman Jack

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