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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to members of the Labourers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) in Grimsby, Ont., on Oct. 13.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

One of Canada’s largest construction unions, which threw its support behind Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives in the 2022 provincial election, has now come out in strong opposition to the Ford government’s bill to stop education workers from striking.

On Tuesday, the Labourers’ International Union of North America, or LiUNA, accused the government of “eroding the collective bargaining rights” of 55,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, or CUPE, who are in a labour dispute with the government over wages.

“Restricting collective bargaining and the right for unions to strike and negotiate freely through the implementation of back-to-work legislation and enacting the notwithstanding clause sets a dangerous precedent,” stated a letter sent by LiUNA international vice-president Joseph Mancinelli to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

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The union is urging the government to revoke the bill.

For weeks, the Ontario government and thousands of education workers, represented by CUPE, have been locked in a hostile battle over wage increases. The union has asked the province for annual raises of $3.25 an hour, which would amount to 11.7 per cent, but the government’s final offer to workers was a wage increase of 2.5 per cent annually for those earning less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent for those earning more.

On Monday, the provincial government tabled back-to-work legislation that included a notwithstanding clause that would override the ability of CUPE to mount a legal challenge against the legislation. Despite the threat of fines against them, CUPE workers are planning to proceed with what would be an illegal strike on Friday.

Mr. Mancinelli’s rhetoric toward the Ford government stands in sharp contrast to the union’s position just six months ago, when it, along with seven other construction unions, backed the PCs for re-election.

“They’re completely aligned with LiUNA when it comes to doing these things,” said Mr. Mancinelli back in May, in reference to Mr. Ford and his party supporting new infrastructure projects such as building new highways.

Mr. Mancinelli did not respond to an interview request from The Globe and Mail to discuss the union’s current position on the impending strike and the use of the notwithstanding clause. In a Twitter post, LiUNA emphasized that the union has always taken the position that it does not support any interference by government in the collective bargaining process.

“We do not speak for government of any stripe at any level. When you endorse and/or support a party it doesn’t come without holding them accountable and you will never agree with one party on every single thing said and done. That’s reality,” the union tweeted.

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, said she was not surprised that LiUNA had spoken up on the issue, even if it had a history of supporting the Ford government.

“I think their political strategy should be best understood as a transactional one, not a partisan one. These are unions that care a lot about collective bargaining rights, and they do not like seeing that undermined because it is a threat to their own role as a union,” she explained.

Unions across the country have lashed out against the Ford government’s use of the notwithstanding clause to shut down a potential legal challenge to its back-to-work legislation. The Ontario Federation of Labour, a collective representing 54 unions and up to one million workers, called on the government to withdraw the legislation and “negotiate in good faith.” The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association accused the province of abusing its power to undermine the collective bargaining process. Many of these unions are calling for a general workers’ strike on Friday, to express solidarity with CUPE’s education workers.

Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said that the government’s back-to-work legislation shows the “limitation and contradiction of the PC party’s labour charm offensive.” The government has seemingly pushed for better working conditions in some facets of employment. Over the past year, the government introduced right-to-disconnect legislation, and a law that compelled employers to disclose to their employees how they are being monitored electronically. And on the campaign trail this past May, the PCs repeatedly touted their endorsement by eight construction unions, as a sign that it had won the support of the labour movement.

“I think the Ford government may have underestimated the reaction of the labour movement more broadly,” said Prof. Ross. “Moments like this do provide a channel for people’s anger and pent-up frustration when they don’t have other outlets.”

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