• By: Dan Donovan

OSSTF President calls for Education support workers to be fairly compensated.

ABOVE: Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) President Karen Littlewood is calling for real investments in public education in Ontario.

As hundreds of high school students were changing class and walking across the scenic grounds of Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa on a sunny Thursday morning, Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) President Karen Littlewood held a press conference just outside the front entrance of the high school, calling for more investments in public education in Ontario for education workers.

Littlewood and the OSSTF are negotiating with the Ford government to improve investments in public education in Ontario. A key issue for the OSSTF is to increase compensation for Ontario’s frontline education workers. These are not teachers; they are the over 20,000 OSSTF members who work as custodians, educational assistants, secretaries, clerical staff, early childhood educators, child and youth development workers who help children with autism and behaviour problems, and many others.

Littlewood said it was not helpful that the Ford government is “instilling fear in parents and students by villainizing unions and educators, saying our contract negotiations will cause disruptions to the school year. They were saying that before the school year had even started.” She expressed some dismay over comments made by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on August 17 when he claimed that unions were seeking a 52 percent pay increase over four years for education workers, describing it as an “astronomical, unreasonable” amount that’s unfair to Ontario taxpayers.” 

Littlewood said the reality is that “our education worker members earn less than $45,000 a year. Many must rely on a second or third job to get by. They provide support to students that are most in need and yet are among the most underpaid and disrespected.”

The Ford government has offered a two percent-a-year increase for workers earning less than $40,000 yearly and a 1.25 percent for everyone else. Julie Fontaine, president of the OSSTF local representing 350 support staff working in classrooms at Ottawa’s French Catholic school board, said her members are underpaid. She said there is a staffing shortage because it’s difficult to attract and retain employees. Fontaine, who has a three-year diploma in child and youth development, worked for 22 years at the board, helping children with autism and behaviour problems. She earned $40,000 for the school year and was laid off in the summer. “I loved my job,” said Fontaine. “I would get up in the morning and be so happy to go to work with the children….” However, she said she was forced to work second jobs in a group home and as a waitress to make ends meet. “I’m not ashamed to say that. I had to support my family.”

The current round of bargaining is underway after two years of unprecedented interruptions to student learning due to Covid. Littlewood noted that “despite our best hopes, COVID is not done. The last thing anyone wants to go through is another round of school closures and last-minute decisions.”

In June, the Ford government unveiled their campaign to promote their Plan to Catch Up. Their main message is the importance of stability so students can make up for the learning loss caused by the pandemic.

Littlewood says, “Education workers and teachers working in publicly funded schools want a return to stable and safe in-person learning. They want to see the government and school boards fulfill their duty and come to the bargaining table with proposals to ensure a continued high-quality learning experience. Littlewood says that all Ontarians benefit from a strong, stable public education system. “However, the government’s implication that it is solely the responsibility of teachers and education workers to ensure stability ignores their responsibility to the students of this province.”

Littlewood said that stability for those who learn and work in Ontario’s schools “starts with ensuring we have certified and trained professionals in school that provide the supports and services that students need.” She added that it also means “class sizes that reflect the needs of students. Learning recovery will require greater attention to student needs, all of which are provided by dedicated teachers and education workers.”   

Littlewood noted, “while the government says they can’t afford more investments in education and its workers, they are choosing to underfund the public education system. They have nearly a billion dollars of unspent federal money meant for Ontario’s schools.”

Littlewood says the OSSTF “will fight to make sure that this government does not set the system up for failure. Our southern neighbours in the United States have already shown us how detrimental it can be to increase privatization in public education. This includes charter schools, voucher systems, and tax credits for private schools, all of which have directed more public money towards for-profit corporations instead of investing it in the classroom where it belongs and will have the greatest impact.”

The OSSTF president says education workers are key to ensuring students succeed in Ontario. She called for real investments in public education in Ontario “that ensure students get a robust learning experience in a stable environment with access to the supports and services they need. Students deserve nothing less.”

Contracts for the province’s major education unions expired on August 31. When asked if she would support the idea of a higher wage increase for her lowest-paid members, Littlewood said that depending on what is proposed at the bargaining table.