Education workers to strike Friday despite passage of legislation that makes it illegal

CUPE vows to fight the Ford government and says it can raise the money to pay fines which could add up to millions of dollars a day as the debate rages over labour rights.

By Michael Ranger and Michael Talbot

Premier Doug Ford’s government has passed legislation that will impose a contract on education workers and make it illegal for them to strike – a move that isn’t stopping 55,000 workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) from walking off the job on Friday, and possibly into the foreseeable future.

The legislation passed Friday includes steep fines for defying the strike ban, but CUPE says its workers, including educational assistants, custodians and administrative staff, will indeed start a strike Friday “until further notice.”

Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, has directed school boards to make “every effort” to keep schools open or pivot to remote learning during what he called the “illegal” strike.

School boards have scrambled to make contingency plans, with some saying they will close and others committing to moving forward with online classes.

Premier Ford was notably absent when the vote was counted.

RELATED: What GTA school boards are planning if education workers strike

Talks between the Ford government and the union broke down without an agreement hours before the controversial legislation passed.

“Regardless of the attempts by your OSBCU Bargaining Committee to achieve a negotiated deal that respects the needs of workers, students and families, the Ford Conservative government would not make the necessary investments to achieve this deal,” CUPE said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Moments later, Lecce told reporters the mediator ended talks because the two sides were too far apart.

“CUPE has decided to proceed with a strike since Sunday. We brought forth legislation on Monday on the basis that we have to avert a strike,” said Lecce. “There’s going to be an illegal strike tomorrow. If they proceed, it will be illegal.”

In a memo obtained by The Canadian Press, the ministry urged school boards to “implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible.”

If boards determine they can’t safely open schools without the CUPE members, the ministry says, “school boards must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning.”

Earlier, Premier Ford said education workers left him “no choice” but to use the notwithstanding clause legislation to force a contract on school support staff and quash a strike.

During question period ahead of introduction of the legislation, Ford said he would do “whatever it takes” to keep Ontario’s two million students in the class.

“After two years of pandemic disruptions, enough is enough. We need kids in the classroom learning,” said Ford. “Unfortunately … CUPE refuses to withdraw their strike action, they refuse to back down in shutting down schools …CUPE has left us no choice but to use legislation to ensure stability for millions of students.”

The province’s legislation states that CUPE members could face fines of up to $4,000 per day, and the union could face fines of up to $500,000 for each day of striking.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association demanded the province withdraw the bill and condemned the Ford government’s use of the notwithstanding clause.

“This catastrophe could leak outside of Ontario and across Canada,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director for the organization. “The government is violating workers’ charter right to freedom of association.”

The clause allows the legislature to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.

The Ford government has been pushing the back-to-work legislation since Monday after the union gave five days notice of a provincewide strike if a deal was not reached by Friday

Several other unions, including the teachers’ unions currently in bargaining with the government, have expressed solidarity with CUPE. The most notable example is the Labourers’ International Union of North America – LiUNA – which endorsed Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the spring election.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) says its 8,000 education workers will walk off the job Friday in solidarity with CUPE members.

Trudeau calls use of notwithstanding clause ‘wrong and inappropriate’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently expressed his disapproval of the use of the notwithstanding clause to Doug Ford in a call on Wednesday.

“The Prime Minister emphasized the critical importance of standing up for Canadians’ rights and freedoms, including workers’ rights,” Trudeau told Ford, according to a readout of the call provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“He was clear that the pre-emptive use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause is wrong and inappropriate, and should only ever be used in the most exceptional of circumstances.”

Ford responded by telling the prime minister that a work stoppage would have an “unacceptable” effect on students, according to the premier’s office.

The premier and Lecce have continued to express desire to keep children in class following two years of on-and-off school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier Wednesday, Trudeau said his government was looking at its options to respond to Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause.

Province rejected unions counter-offer, CUPE says

CUPE said it presented a counter-offer late Tuesday, but Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that the government would not negotiate unless the union cancels its job action.

The union later said the government had rejected its latest offer.

“At this point, without anything changing, we are on strike until further notice starting Friday unless a deal is reached,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, while speaking to reporters on Wednesday.

“The question you need to be asking the government is, why are you still determined to remove the rights of workers rather than coming to the table and negotiating.”

CUPE had been seeking an annual salary increase of 11.7 per cent. The government is proposing to legislate a contract with raises of 2.5 per cent a year for workers making less than $43,000 per year and 1.5 per cent for all others.

Walton says the wage proposal in the legislation is “actually less than it was before.”

“They’ve put in more pieces that would actually prevent workers from getting the 2.5 (per cent),” said Walton.

The union intends to picket in front of MPP offices on Friday, and not outside of schools.

With files from The Canadian Press

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