TORONTO — Ontario students returned to class Tuesday amid uncertainty surrounding labour talks between the government and unions representing public school teachers and educational workers.

Education sector contracts expired Saturday and while bargaining is still in its early stages warning signs have already begun to emerge from the talks.

The union representing 55,000 education workers — custodians, clerical workers and educational assistants — asked its members Tuesday for a strike mandate after conducting some bargaining with the government and the province’s school boards this summer.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said she expects workers will give the union a “strong” strike mandate when voting wraps up in two weeks.

“What we’ve been seeing is the government is not really willing to work right now,” Walton said. “We’re saying we have to work together on this if we’re going to make some movement.”

The union has not ruled out taking a range of labour action if talks are not productive. CUPE has previously said its central bargaining priorities are wages, benefits, job security and sick leave.

“I would put the ball back into the (school board) association and the government,” said Walton, adding that if the union calls for work-to-rule action, it’ll be because they’re not reaching an agreement at the bargaining table.

The government is also currently negotiating with a number of major teachers’ unions, including the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

The OSSTF doesn’t expect substantive talks to get underway until mid-to-late September and the ETFO has described discussions as slow but “respectful.” 

The talks come after the government announced earlier this year that high school class sizes would increase from an average of 22 to 28 over four years, and average class sizes for Grades 4 to 8 would increase by one student per classroom. The government has said that will mean 3,475 fewer teachers in the system over four years, achieved by not filling vacancies when teachers quit or retire.

The potential for a labour disruption has many parents worried.

Joy Henderson, who has three children attending public schools in Toronto’s east end, said she believes labour disruptions were inevitable given the Progressive Conservative government’s recent funding cuts for education.

“I’m preparing my children, especially my son in Grade 9,” she said. “It’s about keeping them motivated … it is going to cause disruption in their lives in some shape or form. It’s also going to be difficult getting my Grade 4 son to study when he thinks he doesn’t have to.”

Henderson, who is the leader of a local parents’ group, said she was concerned a labour disruption could leave parents scrambling for child-care options.

“I’m also in school, so that might mean I have to take some time and talk to professors and say ‘I’m taking some time off,’” she said. “It will be difficult.”

Crystal Bevens-Leblanc, a mother of two who leads a parents’ group near Kingston, Ont., said she hopes the government and unions can work out a deal.

“They’re supposed to be negotiating but the government doesn’t seem willing to negotiate,” she said. “This is the line and that’s it, sort of thing.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government continues to call on all parties to reach a deal as soon as possible.

“Our government will continue to negotiate in good faith in order to reach a deal that makes sure students remain in class,” he said in a statement.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said anxiety hangs over the entire education system because of the cuts made by Premier Doug Ford’s government.

“Ontario is making an irresponsible shift from a province that invests in schools to one that puts the squeeze on them,” he said in a statement. “And as a parent myself, I’m worried about how this government’s erratic decisions will affect my daughter’s future.”

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser urged the government to press ahead with the labour talks and find compromise.

“A deal can always be made,” he said. “If the common ground is what’s best for students and their families, predictability and stability and a great school system then there’s a way to find a solution.”

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government needs to be at the bargaining table in good faith.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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