“If you are arrested, your first call should be to your local president who will in turn contact your National Representative.” These words hit hard. These words were included in an email sent to all members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 5678, in anticipation of strike action beginning on November 4. Strike action went ahead on November 4 and 7 anyway, with CUPE members returning to work and schools reopening on November 8 under the promise of a full repeal of Bill 28, and a return to fair bargaining. I am one of those CUPE 5678 members, and I still struggle to process what Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce did. This is shameful.
I am glad Bill 28 was repealed, but it never should have passed in the first place. I shouldn’t even have to discuss the things that the union is fighting for, or the merit of these things, in order to express why it was wrong to legislate against fair collective bargaining, or to try and force ordinary low paid workers to go to work against their will under threat of being issued a fine or being arrested. Nevertheless, I will.
I am going to throw out some numbers, and I can only hope that by the time you are reading this, a better deal has been reached, and these numbers will no longer be relevant. By now, most people ought to know that it is not teachers who are members of CUPE, but rather school support staff. Contrary to popular belief, these are not well-paid workers. A starting custodian makes just $19.79 hourly. An Educational Assistant (EA) makes just $21.72 hourly, and a Registered Early Childhood Educator (RECE) can expect a starting pay of just $22.34 per hour. These wages increase yearly in very small increments until a CUPE employee’s fifth year, when they cap out at an average of about $2 above the starting wage. Keep in mind that many of these positions have working hours that are below what would be considered full time employment.
Why does it matter? Why don’t CUPE workers simply get a different job if they don’t like the pay? Surely there are others who would appreciate these jobs? Wrong! So very wrong! What happens when too many of these CUPE workers call your bluff? I know many who already have, in our area alone. A typical RECE position at a childcare centre will pay a starting wage of at least $23 hourly, often more. I know this because, well, I run one. We all know with the current economy, that we can work at McDonalds for $16.50 per hour, and I just came across a local warehouse worker job with full time hours posted for $17 per hour. Few employers can get away with paying minimum wage anymore, and the gap between minimum wage workers and the professionals who care for and help educate your kids is closing very quickly. Area factories pay much more than what CUPE members make. The Lactalis plant in Winchester has paid much more generous wages for years. A factory in Cornwall has just increased its labourers’ wages to an average of $23 hourly. I worked at that same factory less than a decade ago for $12.55 per hour. That is nearly double. Even the minimum wage itself is 50% higher than it was back then. You know what hasn’t kept up at all? CUPE wages. The world is clearly changing, and school support staff are being left behind.
This matters for the simple reason that workers are leaving school support staff positions in droves. Who are these mystical workers who are waiting to swoop in and take these positions if CUPE members don’t appreciate them? There are none. If CUPE workers keep leaving for better paying jobs, it won’t be a strike that keeps your kids out of school, it will a permanent lack of staff that necessitates switching everything online for the foreseeable future. That is when the nay-sayers will have no one left to complain about. That is when they will see that you need to pay people what they are worth. We can get angry with workers for striking, but we wouldn’t dare be angry with them for quitting.
Imagine holding onto your job out of dedication, out of a love for children who aren’t your own, and a commitment to making their learning experience as amazing as possible. Then imagine, that not only are you totally disrespected when asking for a fair wage, but you also get threatened with criminal punishment if you exercise your constitutionally protected right to strike. Maybe Minister Lecce, who didn’t even attend public school as a child and won’t put his own children in the public education system he oversees for $165,000 per year, should find a new job. After all, the government that was supposed to protect the average worker is now a long way off from doing its job.