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Op-Ed: Ford and boards cut education workers, destabilizing schools

Op-Ed: A local high school custodian says cuts to education workers have gone too far, with union in collective bargaining.
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Devin Klassen is a custodian working for Lakehead District School Board and a member of the CUPE Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU) education workers’ central bargaining committee.

I’m a high school custodian.

I was drawn to a career as a front-line education worker because my mother is an educational assistant and my father is a retired custodian.

Our family is committed to doing the often-overlooked groundwork to make sure the next generation prospers.

In addition to the value of hard work and the importance of learning, my parents also taught me that it’s necessary to speak up when things aren’t right. That’s why I’ve volunteered to be a member of my union’s central bargaining committee.

My 55,000 coworkers and I, all of us members of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, are bargaining to guarantee increased services for students, protect service levels against cuts, and help solve school boards’ problems retaining and recruiting workers.

We’re also bargaining for a much-needed significant wage increase after experiencing a real wage cut of 18 per cent over the last decade. Our ask is $3.25 more per hour each year of a three-year collective agreement.

Just last month, right before school started, my school board – your school board – announced a ‘reduction of 9.125 full-time equivalents.’ That’s corporate jargon for cutting the jobs of at least 16 people.

Because Doug Ford’s government cut education funding by $800 per student during its first four years in office – the removal of $1.6 billion last year alone – school board bosses here are cutting three maintenance workers and 13 custodians.

Here’s why this is a problem.

I’m a rotation custodian. My hours are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. one week, the next week I’ll be scheduled to work 3 to 11 p.m.

One day last week, I came in, opened the school, and learned that the head custodian was off sick. But there was no one available to cover for him, leaving me to try to do the work of two people by myself for the entire day.

That afternoon, I found out one of the evening custodians was sick too. So, after working a full day, I had to stay late to cover the night shift too. That day I ended up working 11 hours. The previous Friday I had worked 11 hours as well.

Now imagine doing this for a month, or several months straight. Think about how exhausted and how much less productive you’d be.

Then think about just how unhelpful it is for the school board to cut more supply custodians – people who were hired as part-time employees and have been working full-time hours because there’s so much work to be done but not enough workers to do it.

So why would anyone in charge go through with these cuts especially now when proper cleaning is such a priority?

I struggle to answer that question, especially when education minister Stephen Lecce could be heard in the provincial legislature making the absurd claim that some 3,000 or 5,000 more people, depending on the day, have magically appeared to work in schools this September because of his and premier Doug Ford’s amazing foresight and benevolence.

A permanent-supply custodian (that’s what the workers whose jobs have been cut are called) is paid $22 - $23 per hour or $40,000 - $43,000 a year if they’re working full-time hours.

By arbitrarily calling these workers casual now, the school board will no longer pay for these custodians’ prescription medication or dental care, no longer owe them any vacation time, and no longer guarantee them enough work hours that pay an amount of money reasonable for anyone to survive on.

And there will be even more cleaning work left to be done at the end of the day.

I’m sure it’s a surprise to no one, except maybe the education minister, that those workers remaining can’t help but see this latest round of demoralizing cuts as further encouragement to seek employment elsewhere. Somewhere that their work is valued, where they don’t have to cross their fingers for enough paid hours to scrape by.

On Tuesday, my coworkers and I will return to the bargaining table.

This meeting could be productive if the provincial government rescinds its insulting offer of demands for concessions, another wage cut, and no guarantee of enough workers to provide the services students deserve and parents expect.

We will, again, urge the Ford government’s negotiators to accept our reasonable, necessary, and affordable proposals for student success and good jobs.

Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce have the power and resources to accept our good proposals and settle. They could and should do that today.


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