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An Ontario education union stood up to unprecedented anti-strike legislation, which the province withdrew. Now, workers have agreed to a new deal. Here’s what you need to know

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Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, hugs a supporter after a Nov. 7 press conference announcing that education workers would be back on the job the next day. Members would ratify a new deal with the province a month later.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

CUPE and Ford: Latest updates

  • Ontario education workers voted 73 per cent in favour of a new four-year contract on Monday, finishing a labour battle in which the province introduced, then withdrew, unprecedented legislation barring their right to strike. The deal guarantees average annual wage hikes of $1 an hour, which amounts to 3.59 per cent on average.
  • The two sides had reached a tentative deal on Nov. 20, preventing a strike that would have closed some of the largest school boards in the province and affected more than a million students.
How did unions get Premier Doug Ford to back down so quickly on Bill 28? Queen’s Park reporter Jeff Gray explains the factors at play.

What were the education workers’ demands?

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions, part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, represents 55,000 support staff, including education assistants, custodians, librarians and people who run administrative offices. OSBCU is one of several education unions whose contracts expired at the end of August. OSBCU members voted for a strike mandate in early October and gave warning that they’d walk out on Nov. 4 without a deal. Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives passed a bill denying OSBCU right to a legal strike (more on that later); talks resumed after Mr. Ford promised to rescind the law, but then broke down again. The two sides agreed to a tentative deal on Nov. 20 that members ratified on Dec. 5, by a vote of 73 per cent.

OBSCU had been asking for annual raises of 6 per cent per year, down from the original demand of 11.7 per cent; in the final agreement, the two sides agreed to 3.59 per cent, or an extra dollar per hour in each year of a four-year contract. The province’s legally imposed contract had 1.5 per cent for workers earning more than $43,000, and 2.5 per cent for those earning less.

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CUPE pickets on Nov. 4 at the Ontario legislature in Toronto, in Kingston and in eastern Ottawa. Cole Burston, Lars Hagberg and Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s strike-banning bill and the notwithstanding clause

What Bill 28 did

The Keeping Students in Class Act, known as Bill 28, was passed in a 74-34 vote on Nov. 3. It forced a collective agreement on CUPE workers immediately and prohibited strikes or lockouts, levying hefty fines on those who went out anyway: up to $4,000 a day for union members and $500,000 a day for the union (costs that OSBCU said it would cover). Mr. Ford relented on Nov. 7, saying he’d repeal the law if CUPE agreed to go back to work; hours later, the union said it agreed to those terms, and a week later, Bill 28 was rescinded.

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Queen Elizabeth II signs Canada's constitutional into law on April 17, 1982, alongside prime minister Pierre Trudeau.Ron Poling/The Canadian Press

The notwithstanding clause, in brief

Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, better known as the notwithstanding clause, allows the federal or provincial parliaments to pass temporary laws that override certain constitutionally protected rights. Democratic freedoms such as voting and public assembly can’t be overriden, the idea being that, if voters don’t like how their government uses the clause, they can freely vote them out at the next election.

This was a safeguard that the Prairie provinces sought in 1981′s constitutional talks so that, in case of a dispute between elected governments and courts, the government could win as long as the people allowed it to. Quebec, for instance, has used it to make sure laws promoting French over other languages will survive a Charter challenge.

How Ford has used he notwithstanding clause before

Mr. Ford is the first Ontario premier to put the clause into legislation, and this was his third time doing it. In 2018, he introduced it in legislation to cut Toronto’s city council in half, but a later court ruling rendered the bill moot. In 2021, a year before he was up for re-election, he used the clause to restore laws for third-party election advertising that unions had successfully challenged in the courts, and won. But there is no precedent for a government suppressing labour rights in the way Bill 28 did.

Ontario’s recent history of school closings

The labour dispute comes after two years of upheaval in schools across Canada, when each province made its own decisions on when to close and reopen schools to dampen waves of COVID-19. A Globe and Mail analysis showed Ontario closed schools for the most time, and Quebec the least, though numbers also varied significantly by municipality and region. (These figures are approximate due to variations in school-board calendars.)

With reports from Caroline Alphonso, Sean Fine and The Canadian Press

More reading

Views on education

Naomi Buck: Educational assistants make it possible for children to learn. For that, they deserve a living wage

Leah Sarson: CUPE’s fight is as much about gender equity as it is about labour rights

Lia de Pauw: Our children are in crisis. School closings make it worse

Robyn Urback: Parents are in no mood for a school strike. Ford knows it

Views on Bill 28

Editorial: Using the notwithstanding clause to negotiate a union contract? That’s like cracking eggs with a jackhammer

Andrew Coyne: What Ottawa should say to the provinces: See your notwithstanding clause, raise you disallowance

David Moscrop: Ontario’s use of the notwithstanding clause for strike-busting is bad business across the board

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