- CUPE to end education worker strikes in Ontario after Doug Ford commits to repeals Bill 28
- Spokesman for the TDSB said schools are set to reopen on Tuesday
- Follow along for the more important updates on the walkout and ongoing negotiations with our reporters.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he will repeal legislation that used the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract on 55,000 education support workers and overrule their right to strike, after their union staged a defiant walkout that shut down schools throughout much of the province.
Public- and private-sector union leaders celebrated in a downtown Toronto hotel on Monday after receiving written notice from the government that it would rescind the legislation, known as Bill 28, as long as the workers, who belong to a division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), return to work.
The union has said its members will do so, allowing schools across Ontario to reopen on Tuesday while the two sides resume contract negotiations.
“The government blinked,” CUPE’s national president Mark Hancock told reporters and supporters at a news conference.
CUPE’s walkout shuttered schools for a second day on Monday, and leaders of several unions threatened a one-day province-wide protest next week if the government did not do away with Bill 28. The legislation invokes Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, better known as the notwithstanding clause, to prevent workers from bringing court challenges against the bill’s restrictions on their rights.
Several large school boards, including the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board, are among those that said their schools would reopen to students on Tuesday – a welcome relief to families who have already faced more than two years of pandemic-related learning disruptions, as students lost out on extracurriculars and face-to-face learning.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Ford told a news conference that the government had “no choice” but to invoke the notwithstanding clause when it raced to pass the legislation last week, because CUPE had issued a five-day strike notice. He said the bill was meant to keep students in class. Many of them, he said, are struggling mentally, emotionally and academically.
“As a gesture of good faith, our government is willing to rescind the legislation ... but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike,” he said.
“I urge CUPE to continue to talk with us at the bargaining table. We’re willing to make a fair deal, one that offers more help for lower-income workers. We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents and fair for taxpayers, and we know we can get there.”
The Premier’s office said legislation to repeal Bill 28 would be tabled when the house returns next Monday.
Negotiations on a new contract between CUPE, the government and school boards will resume Tuesday, according to Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce. If discussions reach an impasse, the union would have to give five days’ notice before taking any further job action.
The workers, who belong to CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), include early childhood educators, education assistants, custodians and other support staff.
Laura Walton, president of OSBCU, said her negotiating team never left the bargaining table, despite Mr. Ford’s claims otherwise. She hoped the government would put forward a new proposal now that her members are no longer protesting. She called the end of the walkout “a gesture of good faith” to the province.
“We’re here waiting right now. The time is ticking,” Ms. Walton said.
On the lawn of Queen’s Park on Monday, hundreds of education workers had gathered to protest the government. Some said they were relieved that Mr. Ford had backtracked on stripping them of their right to strike. They said they were also relieved to be heading back to school.
“Those children are the most affected ones. We care about them. We love them dearly,” said Jouela Cabrera, an education assistant who works for a Toronto Catholic school.
Alex Grech, who said he has been a caretaker with the Toronto District School Board for 38 years, argued that the union should stay on strike until a deal is reached. “I think we should still be out and still bargain,” Mr. Grech said. “Because that’s what [Mr. Ford] wants. He wants us to go back to work to make himself look good.”
Janice Mancini, an early childhood educator, said she missed her students and worried about the disruption to their learning. She said she was sure Mr. Ford would offer the union a fair deal.
“I believe in Doug Ford. He’ll do the right thing,” she added. “He made a mistake. He knows he made a mistake. And now he’s got to do better.”
On Oct. 30, the union gave its required five days’ notice of job action. Negotiations with the government had reached an impasse.
What followed was a marathon week of talks between the two sides through a mediator, even as the government was fast-tracking Bill 28, which would impose a contract that included 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent hikes for those earning more.
The government rejected the union’s latest counteroffer last Wednesday. It included roughly 6-per-cent annual pay increases for workers, who the union has said are among the lowest paid in the education sector. The union had previously asked for 11.7-per-cent annual wage hikes.
On Thursday, as Bill 28 received royal assent, the union vowed to defy the government and proceed with its job action until the legislation was repealed and a new contract was negotiated. More than one million students were home from school on Friday and Monday, as school boards scrambled to relaunch remote learning.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ford’s government applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) seeking an “unlawful strike declaration” against CUPE and an order “directing that any and all unlawful strike activity immediately cease.” The proceedings started late Thursday and ended Sunday night.
Steven Barrett, a lawyer for the union, said on Monday that tribunals such as the OLRB typically do not issue decisions if legislation is going to be repealed. In any case, he said, a decision would be moot at this point.
The Ontario government’s use of the notwithstanding clause has led to widespread criticism, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Trudeau, who was in Laval, Que., on Monday, said the “proactive use” of the notwithstanding clause suspended workers’ rights and freedoms.
“If premiers across the country want to avoid the kind of disruption that we’ve seen in Ontario over these past few days, the answer is obvious: Don’t use the notwithstanding clause proactively,” he said.
The contracts of all education unions in Ontario, including teachers’ unions, expired at the end of August. This was widely expected to be a difficult round of bargaining.
The other unions are still in negotiations with the government.
With a report from Ian Bailey