Ontario MPPs debate back-to-work legislation for education workers

Members of Provincial Parliament took their seats at 5am Tuesday to debate an education bill that would require workers to remain at their jobs despite being in a legal position to strike. Faiza Amin with the latest.

Provincial politicians attended a rare early morning session at Queen’s Park to debate the Ford government’s bill that would impose a contract on Ontario education workers.

The session began at 5 a.m. and extended into the late morning with the province hoping to pass legislation by Thursday. The bill came in reaction to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) giving a five-day notice of their intention to strike on Friday if a deal wasn’t reached with the province.

The union representing the staff, including librarians, custodians and early childhood educators, has declared their intention to walk off the job Friday despite the province’s move, prompting some GTA schools board to pre-emptively announce school closures. (A full list of what GTA school boards are planning can be found here.)

Premier Ford broke his silence on the issue for the first time on Tuesday taking direct aim at union leadership.

“We’re talking over a million parents that would take work off because you want to feather the nest of the heads of the union,” Ford said in the legislature. “I think the labour needs to find new labour leadership.”

“There is only one party in this chamber that’s standing up for parents and students.”

The opposition has slammed the Ford government for attempting to force the bill through on the lowest paid group of education workers. NDP MPP Marit Stiles pointed out the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause, noting it is the first time the clause has ever been used in a labour situation.

“This government is violating the rights of 55,000 Ontario workers, and those workers are parents too,” she says.

A release from the province says they would use the clause to protect the legislation from legal challenges. The clause allows the legislature to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.

The government legislation also states that CUPE members would face fines of up to $4,000 per day if they go ahead with a strike.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce tells CityNews his interests are only in keeping schools open after extended periods of turmoil during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At what point does a government say enough,” Lecce says. “We’ve got to get kids in school, we’ve got to provide stability. And we value those workers which is why we are increasing their pay 10 per cent over four years.”

The opposition contends it was the provincial government who repeatedly kept children out of schools during the pandemic.

“Minister, who shut those classrooms down? Was it the education workers or was it you?” asked Stiles.

It’s unclear if CUPE’s planned walkout on Friday would last more than one day. Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, says whether workers continue to protest after Friday “will be left up to what happens.”

The union says it will be looking at every avenue to fight the legislation.

CUPE has been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent as well as overtime at twice the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and ECEs, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

Negotiations were expected to continue with a mediator on Nov. 1.

With files from The Canadian Press

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