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Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones looks over at Premier Doug Ford as they sit in the Ontario Legislature during Question Period on November 1, 2022.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford pushed forward with a bill that would use the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract on education support workers and ban their right to strike, as the federal government suggested it might intervene in the dispute.

The Progressive Conservative government ordered MPPs to attend the legislature at 5 a.m. on Tuesday in order to start fast-tracking the bill, known as Bill 28. It says the draft legislation is needed to avert a strike as early as Friday that would shut schools and disrupt the learning of two million students who suffered from pandemic closings. The bill was expected to pass within days.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, said late Tuesday night that negotiators passed a counter offer to the government. She said discussions would resume in the morning.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, has warned that its 55,000 education workers would still walk off the job for a daylong protest on Friday in defiance of the bill, which was introduced on Monday. The union says its members, who include education assistants, administrative staff and custodians, are the sector’s lowest paid.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that “using the notwithstanding clause to suspend workers’ rights is wrong.” Justice Minister David Lametti suggested he was looking at ways the federal government could intervene. Mr. Lametti called Mr. Ford’s move “exceedingly problematic” for cutting off political debate and judicial scrutiny, which he said “were essential parts of our democracy.”

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As well, one of Canada’s largest construction unions, the local wing of the Labourers’ International Union North America, or LiUNA, issued an open letter calling on Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce to restore the collective bargaining rights of the education workers union and get back to the bargaining table.

Joseph Mancinelli, LiUNA’s international vice-president and regional manager for Central and Eastern Canada, called the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause a “dangerous precedent that aims to erode respect for collective bargaining rights and unionized labour in Ontario.” Mr. Mancinelli, who has appeared at Mr. Ford’s side at infrastructure announcements and long endorsed him, is among the construction union leaders the government spent its spring re-election campaign boasting it had won over.

The union gave notice on Sunday after talks broke down that it could engage in a legal strike as of Friday – prompting what the union called an “ultimatum” from the government.

If CUPE members walk out on Friday, Bill 28 would level hefty fines: up to $4,000 a day for union members and $500,000 a day for the union. CUPE said it would cover the costs.

The uncertainty has already prompted school boards to announce shutdowns. The Toronto District School Board said it would close schools on Friday. Several other boards, including the York Region District School Board, have told parents to make alternate child-care arrangements.

A large crowd of protesters and leaders from multiple unions gathered near a Ministry of Labour building in Toronto on Tuesday evening before marching to Queen’s Park to protest against the government’s move.

The proposed use of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, known as the notwithstanding clause, has been condemned by constitutional and labour law experts. The bill would be a first use of the clause in a labour dispute in Ontario. It would also be the first use of the clause in Canada to erase the rights to collectively bargain and strike that are protected by the Charter and affirmed in 2015 rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada.

No other Ontario government has resorted to Section 33 since the Charter came into effect in 1982. Originally meant to be a rarely used tool, Mr. Ford has now invoked it three times. In 2018, he introduced it in legislation meant to preserve his move to cut Toronto City Council almost in half amid an election. But a favourable court ruling rendered that bill moot. Last year, Mr. Ford invoked the clause to enact new third-party election advertising rules, after a court struck down existing legislation.

In Question Period on Tuesday, Mr. Ford said the government was making sure students are in class. He said the union had been given a “fair offer” yet was bent on a strike that would shut schools and leave parents scrambling. He suggested union members had different views than their union leaders, whom he accused of making “unreasonable” demands.

“Our party differentiates between labour and labour leadership,” the Premier said. “We support the front-line labour folks.”

CUPE said last month its members voted 96.5 per cent of a strike.

No Ontario cabinet minister stopped to answer reporter questions on the bill after Question Period at Queen’s Park on Tuesday morning. Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey, marching down the hall after the legislature adjourned, was asked about the Prime Minister’s comments and other criticism from legal experts about the use of the notwithstanding clause.

“Our priority is getting the kids in class and keeping them in class,” Mr. Downey said.

Opposition NDP MPP Marit Stiles said the government’s bill provoked a likely strike on Friday and urged it to make a deal at the bargaining table. Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser warned that the government’s willingness to use the notwithstanding clause could see it ban strikes by construction unions on key infrastructure projects.

The government’s final offer to CUPE increased wages by 2.5 per cent each year for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more. The union had asked for raises of about $3.35 an hour, or roughly 11.7 per cent a year.

The current government is not alone in its frustration with threatened strikes by teachers and education workers. A previous Liberal government also imposed contracts on education unions, in 2012. But the courts later ruled the government violated worker rights, and the province had to pay out more than $200-million to the unions.

Follow Jeff Gray on Twitter: @jeffreybgrayOpens in a new window
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