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February 17, 1999
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Toronto school staff set date to strike

By Vanessa Lu
Toronto Star Workplace Issues Reporter

Toronto's 14,000 public school caretakers, secretaries, bus drivers and other support staff could strike at the end of next week if no contract is reached.

Bargaining talks are scheduled between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Toronto District School Board leading up to the 12:01 a.m. strike deadline of Feb. 27.

John Weatherup, president of Local 4400, said the union believes the board would close the schools in the event of a strike, sending 300,000 elementary and secondary school students home.

Some 18,000 children who attend school-based day-care centres would also be shut out. Adult education and ESL programs would be affected as well.

``We're talking about the school system not being able to open safely and securely,'' he said. ``We do not believe there's a way they can keep the schools open.''

Weatherup said his members perform key duties that ensure schools can run safely, including operating boilers in older buildings.

Board Chair Gail Nyberg said the Toronto board has not decided whether schools would close during a strike.

``It is very difficult to keep schools open in a support staff strike, especially in the winter, because you have a legal requirements around stationary engineers,'' Nyberg said.

But she said, ``The board can come together at the drop of a hat whenever they are ready to put something to us.''

Nyberg stressed negotiations are continuing, and the board hopes to reach an agreement before the strike date. ``At this point, we're still a long way from the 27th. We'll still continue to work,'' she said.

A negotiated settlement is possible, Nyberg said, citing how contracts were reached for Toronto's teachers last fall without a strike.

Both sides say some progress has been made during negotiations over the past few weeks.

The union wants a ``modest wage increase'' and job security for its members as it negotiates the first collective agreement for the workers under the amalgamated Toronto school board.

Amalgamation means 36 collective agreements representing employees in seven different school boards must be pared down to three. Each of the old boards had its own hours of work, different grievance procedures as well as wage gaps. The average salary is $26,000 a year. Weatherup said the board has $270 million in a mitigation fund - set up by the provincial government to help the board through the amalgamation process - that could be used in a settlement.

``It's not a long-term solution,'' he admitted. ``But we believe they (the board) can come up with a fair and equitable settlement for the short term.''

Without additional funds, the union estimates the provincial government's funding formula would translate into 4,000 lost jobs over four years.

But Nyberg said the board cannot simply turn over money from the fund, which is designed to cover all transition costs, to support workers.

She said the board is using its budget, along with some money in the mitigation fund, to try to reach a two-year deal.

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