Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Teacher Sa’diya Matthew helps a student during summer school at Wilfrid Jury Public School in London, Ont., on July 20.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s education support staff plan to walk off the job on Friday in defiance of a bill introduced by the provincial government that would impose a contract and ban their right to a legal strike.

If passed, the bill would not only use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to erase a union’s right to strike or bargain collectively for the first time in Canada, it would also pre-empt any future action before the Ontario Labour Relations Board or other arbitration proceedings or court challenges.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government was “left with no choice,” but to introduce a bill on Monday to avert a strike by 55,000 education workers that was set to start at the end of the week.

The government is in negotiations with all major education unions, whose contracts expired at the end of August. It was widely expected to be a difficult round of bargaining with Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government.

“This is about doing what’s right, and we will continue to act decisively so your kids remain in class where they belong,” Mr. Lecce said at a news conference at Queen’s Park after tabling the bill.

Ontario’s major education unions are renegotiating contracts. Here’s what you need to know

CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, said education workers would stage a province-wide protest on Friday – and it wouldn’t rule out further action. The union represents support staff, including education assistants, early childhood educators, clerical staff and caretakers.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, described the government’s legislation as a “monstrous overreach.” He said the province was using a “nuclear option.” If the bill passes and support staff walk off the job, they would face fines of $4,000 a person each day, in addition to a $500,000 daily fine for the union. CUPE said it would cover the costs.

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.

On Sunday, OSBCU gave the required five days’ notice of job action after talks with the province broke down. The union said it was given an “ultimatum” by the government to either withdraw its plan to strike or face back-to-work legislation.

The government’s final offer to OSBCU increased wages slightly to 2.5 per cent each year for workers earning less than $43,000, and a 1.5-per-cent annual hike for those earning more. The previous offer was a 2-per-cent increase each year over a four-year contract for those earning less than $40,000 and a 1.25-per-cent wage hike for those earning more.

The union said that amounts to 40 to 67 cents an hour.

OSBCU asked the province for annual raises of about $3.25 an hour, which amounts to roughly 11.7 per cent annually.

OSBCU president Laura Walton said support staff are among the lowest paid in the education sector and are often forced to work multiple jobs. Asked on Monday if she was concerned about the consequences of a province-wide walkout, she responded: “I’m concerned about the consequences that will happen if we don’t fight back.”

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario called off talks with the government on Monday in a show of support for OSBCU.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said negotiations with the government have been “collegial,” but she was worried that a “heavy-handed” approach would be applied to all unions.

The previous Liberal government had also imposed contracts on education unions in 2012. The courts later ruled that the government violated worker rights, and the province had to pay out more than $200-million to the unions.

CUPE said it would explore how to fight the proposed legislation. However, the government’s intention to use the notwithstanding clause makes it trickier.

This marks the third time Mr. Ford’s government has invoked the notwithstanding clause, which the drafters of Canada’s Constitution had envisioned as a rarely used emergency tool. In 2018, he introduced it in legislation meant to preserve his move to cut Toronto’s city council almost in half amidst 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 legislation challenged by a coalition of unions.

David Doorey, an associate professor of work law at York University, said the use of the notwithstanding clause was the first since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2015 that the right to free association in the Charter protected collective bargaining and the right to strike. (Saskatchewan had invoked the clause in back-to-work legislation in 1986 but that move was later ruled unnecessary.)

Prof. Doorey called Ontario’s move “draconian.”

“When the government strips workers of the only effective way to pressure employers in bargaining, it creates the potential for anger and frustration to boil over in other ways,” he said.

The bill is expected to be rushed through the legislature before Friday’s potential strike. Government House Leader Paul Calandra told the House that the government would be issuing an order-in-council to reconvene at 5 a.m. on Tuesday to debate the bill.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe