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CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto when education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Friday. Many schools in Ontario are closed as union members including education assistants, librarians and custodians, took the job action  after the Ford government imposed a contract on 55,000 members.

CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto when education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Nov. 4.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government’s unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution in a labour dispute with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had the unintended effect of uniting the largest and most prominent Canadian unions – some of which have been at odds with one another for years.

Observers of the labour movement say this show of unity among unions is a rare one, but the direct result of Premier Doug Ford’s government invoking a piece of legislation that, at its core, threatened the most basic principles of trade unionism – the right to collectively bargain.

On Monday, leaders of CUPE gathered alongside heads of more than 20 unions and labour federations in Toronto to announce that Ontario education workers would return to work in response to Mr. Ford’s pledge to repeal Bill 28 – a controversial piece of legislation that effectively quashed the ability of CUPE education workers to go on strike.

CUPE and Doug Ford are standing down in their labour dispute. What now? Latest updates in the Bill 28

Among the organizations present were Unifor, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and a number of construction unions that endorsed the Ford government in the provincial election this past June.

“What we saw on Monday was extremely rare,” explained Robert Hickey, a professor of employment relations at Queen’s University. “Like any democratic organization, unions have disputes with one another and with central bodies. But to come together like this in such a short period of time was symbolic of the seriousness of the threat that the labour movement saw Bill 28 to be.”

After the Ford government invoked the use of the notwithstanding clause in its back-to-work legislation as an attempt to force CUPE into a new collective agreement for 55,000 education workers without going on strike, there was a surge of support by unions across the country for CUPE and its members.

CUPE-organized rallies in Toronto over the weekend were attended by scores of members of private-sector unions such as Unifor, the UFCW, teachers’ unions and Ontario building-trades unions. The BC Teachers’ Federation pledged to donate $1-million to CUPE in the event its members were fined by the Ford government for participating in what the government termed an illegal strike. Unifor pledged $100,000.

By Sunday evening, there was talk of a general strike – that major Canadian unions would call on their workers in Ontario to stage a walkout on Nov. 14 in protest of Bill 28, and in support of CUPE’s education workers.

“Just seven days ago, no one was talking about a general strike. It’s almost like Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause poked a hibernating bear,” said Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies at Brock University.

Dr. Savage believes that by refusing to negotiate and by imposing a settlement on CUPE, as the union tried to bargain over wages of educational assistants and school support staff, the Ford government managed to bring together a labour movement that had previously been internally divided.

“It was a backlash that the government was not expecting. And it built so quickly amongst unions, also out of fear that what happened to CUPE could happen to them at the bargaining table,” Dr. Savage explained.

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CUPE president Mark Hancock, OSBCU president Laura Walton, CLC president Bea Bruske, ETFO president Karen Brown, Unifor national president Lana Payne, OPSEU president JP Hornick, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn

CUPE president Mark Hancock speaks at a press conference in Toronto alongside the leaders of more than 20 unions and labour federations on Nov. 7.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The last time unions were this closely united against government was in the late 1990s, when a series of strikes, termed “Days of Action,” were organized by private- and public-sector unions to protest austerity measures imposed by the then Ontario premier, Progressive Conservative Mike Harris.

While private-sector unions such as the United Steelworkers were often in disagreement with their public-sector counterparts over the strategies and goals of the Days of Action, these unions galvanized immense support from their members to participate in multiple demonstrations and protests, which featured cross-picketing at each other’s workplaces.

Craig Heron, a labour historian and professor emeritus at York University, noted that in the Canadian industrial-relations system, general strikes are rare because there are legal constraints in organizing them. Unions and their members are tied to contracts with employers, and are not allowed to have sympathy strikes – strikes that are not tied to their own grievances, but in support of another group of workers.

“This time, however, something quite dramatic happened,” Prof. Heron said.

“The very fact that there was talk of a general strike was a combination of a number of things – a feeling amongst unions that a premier who campaigned on sticking up for the little guy was now turning around and attacking the weakest group of workers in the educational sector, and that down the line this legislation could be used against all unions,” he added.

At CUPE’s news conference on Monday, the newly elected president of Unifor, Lana Payne, stood alongside Bea Bruske, president of the CLC, and both expressed their support for CUPE’s education workers. Unifor famously withdrew from the CLC in 2018, having accused the organization of not having an effective process that allows workers to switch union affiliations. The CLC, in turn, accused Unifor of raiding another union for members.

But in periods of extreme crisis, Canadian unions have proven to put aside their differences and come together, says Rafael Gomez, a professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto. “The Ford government’s miscalculation was not understanding that there is precedent for the labour movement to unite in a situation where governments cross the Rubicon, like when they invoke heavy-handed legislation.”

For Stephanie Ross, associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University and an author of multiple books on the Canadian labour movement, this newfound unity displayed by labour leaders could be the precursor to a rebuilding of connections between different factions.

“In one fell swoop, the Ford government did what unions themselves have not managed to do in decades. This was definitely a wake-up call to unions that you can actually affect change when you come together.”

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