Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the battle between Ontario and the education union that staged a second day-long strike this week is all about salaries.
Public high school teachers and support staff represented by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) are hurting students in their drive to get a raise the province can’t afford, says Lecce.
Union leaders disagree, saying the major issues in the dispute revolve around the quality of education as the province increases class sizes, introduces mandatory online courses for high school students and cuts funding that supports vulnerable students.
Lecce emphasizes the salaries earned by teachers, while the union points out that support staff earn much less.
The wage debate features confusing and contradictory numbers. Here’s a primer:
What are wages now?
The government says Ontario public high school teachers represented by OSSTF make an average of $92,900 a year, while the union pegs the average at $86,682. They use different methods of calculation.
Lecce says OSSTF teachers earn the second highest salaries in Canada. When asked to provide the evidence for that statement, his department declined, suggesting the provinces could be contacted directly for information about teacher salaries.
However, the department did provide a chart showing the combined average salary of elementary and secondary teachers in Ontario was $86,689 in 2017, the second highest in Canada after Alberta.
About a third of OSSTF’s 60,000 members are support staff.
The education ministry says it has not conducted a cross-country comparison of support staff wages.
One of the largest categories of support staff are educational assistants, who help children with behaviour problems, mental health issues and special-education needs. The EAs are increasingly dealing with disruptive and violent children in elementary schools, say union officials. Educational assistants earn an average of about $31,595 for a school year, according to an OSSTF calculation based on 14 locals.
The union also includes early childhood educators who work in kindergartens, office administrators, and other professionals like social workers and custodians.
Many of the support staff work only 10 months a year. Others work part time.
Examples of OSSTF member wages in Ottawa:
Full-time teacher: $51,339 to $99,971
Library Technician: $32,500 to $41,600 for 10 to 10.5 months of work
Speech language pathologist (Masters level): $61,568 to $78 675 a year
Social worker: (Masters level): $69, 669 to $80,155 a year
Educational assistant: From $23.67 to a maximum of 30.30 a hour with seven years’ experience. They work for 10 months and are laid off in the summer.
Early childhood educator: From $19.58 to a maximum of $27.74 an hour with five years’ experience. They work for 10 months and are laid off in the summer.
Office administrator at secondary schools: $47,000 to 61,000 a year with seven years’ experience for those who work year-round
Office administrator at elementary schools and board departments: $39,000 to $50,800 with seven years’ experience for those who work 10 months a year
School office assistant: $28,300 to $35,800 with seven years’ experience for those who work 10 months a year
What salary increase is the union looking for?
OSSTF has asked for a raise equal to the increase in the cost of living, currently around two per cent a year. OSSTF President Harvey Bischof says that over the past seven years his members wages haven’t kept up with inflation.
Lecce says the one-per-cent annual raise the government is offering is reasonable, especially since that’s the limit for other public servants under the wage-restraint law his government passed this fall. Why should education workers get more than other public servants? he says. OSSTF and three other education unions announced Thursday they are filing a court challenge against the legislation for interfering with their right to collectively bargain wages.
How much will the raise cost?
Bischof says the cost-of-living raise for OSSTF members will cost about $200 million a year. The government estimates it will cost $293 million in the final year of a three-year contract.
In his public statements Lecce has repeatedly said that OSSTF is asking for $1.5 billion. Earlier this week in the legislature, for instance, Lecce said the union’s strike “demonstrated yet again that OSSTF, if they don’t get their demands, including a $1.5 billion increase in compensation, are prepared to walk out again.”
What does the $1.5 billion represent? That is the cost of a two-per-cent wage increase and a six-per-cent increase in benefits for all education workers in the province in the final year of a three-year contract, says the ministry.
OSSTF says Lecce’s use of the number in comments about the OSSTF dispute is wrong and misleading.
Lecce, however, says $1.5 billion is the likely ultimate price tag for the province. If one education union gets a raise others will probably get the same thing, he says. CUPE, one of the major education unions, has already settled for a one-per-cent annual raise along with a “me too” clause stipulating their members get more if other unions negotiate higher increases.
What else is OSSTF asking for?
The government released data earlier this week about the cost of OSSTF’s proposals. In a briefing, education ministry officials said they were unable to provide the itemized costs for reducing high school class sizes back to an average of 22 and cancelling mandatory e-learning, where government plans calls for average class sizes of 35.
However, they did calculate various totals that combined those costs with other requests made by OSST, from paternity leave to violence prevention training and extra funding for support staff.
If the OSSTF requests were also awarded to all education worker unions, the cost would be at least $7 billion over three years, according to the government.
Bischof, in an interview, dismissed the $7 billion as “total fiction,” saying the minister is simply trying to inflame the situation with rhetoric.
Voices from the picket lines:
Her job: early childhood educator in Ottawa’s French Catholic school board
Roxanne Girard says she loves little kids. That’s the reason she’s worked for 25 years as an early childhood educator in a kindergarten class, even though she considers the pay “awful” considering her responsibilities. She earns about $44,000 for 10 months’ work, and is laid off each summer.
Girard says her principal and co-workers are fantastic, but it’s challenging working in a classroom, alongside a teacher, with 29 students.
“We have kids with behaviour problems, with ADHD … and there isn’t a lot of support for them.”
Sometimes one or two kids demand virtually all the attention, she says. “Some of them are going to hit you but it’s not too bad. They are only three to six years old. They can spit on you, they yell at you. When they are having a temper tantrum you have to carry them out.”
Some kids have toileting accidents or arrive at school ill or without a proper lunch.
Still, Girard says she wouldn’t change jobs. “It’s been my life, working with kids.
“I love making a difference with the kids’ lives. I love to teach them things. Respect, equality and that we have to help each other and love each other.”
Job: educational assistant at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
Rebecca Robins says there aren’t a lot of jobs where you can expect to be injured with virtual impunity. Educational assistants are increasingly facing violence in the classroom, she says. “We endure concussions, broken bones, sprains, being spit upon, bitten, bruised and sworn at.
“The public doesn’t know how poorly we are paid, what the issues are in the classroom and what we’re dealing with on a daily basis.”
“Many of the people in my bargaining unit cannot survive without a second job or be lucky enough to have a spouse who makes a decent living.”
But the contract dispute is not just about salary, says Robins. The union is also fighting for more support for the most vulnerable and demanding students, she says.
One of the OSSTF requests is for the restoration of a special fund to support high-needs students that was not renewed when the contract expired in August.
Job: High school teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
Parke says the education minister only talks about teacher salaries because it’s easier than trying to argue that support staff in the union don’t deserve a cost-of-living increase. “Teachers are paid well. I’m fully prepared to acknowledge that.”
For Parke, the biggest wage issue is not what raise the teachers are awarded, but whether it was done through “free and fair collective bargaining.” He objects to the government’s wage-restraint law.
But a raise is “definitely not the major issue by a long shot,” says Parke, who has taught for a decade. “There’s a much bigger issue here, which is the state of public education in Ontario. That is what most teachers are concerned about.”
Parke says larger classes and mandatory e-learning are the key issues.
He’s concerned that requiring all students to take two credits online will create inequality. Some students don’t have a computer or internet. Many students have trouble with that style of learning, he says, and research suggests that those who do best at online courses are self-motivated high achievers.
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