Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he no longer wants to fight with education workers and is giving them what he calls an “improved offer” – a day after agreeing to scrap legislation that stripped them of their constitutional right to a legal strike and provoked an outcry from across the labour movement.
“I don’t want to fight. I just want the kids in school,” Mr. Ford told reporters at Queen’s Park on Tuesday morning. “I’m past the stage of fighting and it’s not worth it.”
The government would not confirm what would be in its sweetened offer to the union, an affiliate of the Canadian Union of Public Employees that represents 55,000 caretakers, education assistants and other support workers that walked off the job last week in the face of massive fines.
Mr. Ford said his offer would be aimed at helping the union’s lower-income workers. The contract the government had sought to impose unilaterally in the strike-ban legislation it passed last week 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 – much lower than the union’s demands.
Mr. Ford’s unprecedented move to pass Bill 28, which invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to suspend the union’s right to strike, sparked widespread condemnation in the labour movement, including from private-sector unions that the government counts as supporters. It also earned warnings from labour-law experts, the Prime Minister and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
And it prompted the education workers union to walk out anyway, prompting many schools to close for two days – leaving a million students in limbo and many of their parents scrambling for child care.
But on Monday, Mr. Ford backed down, agreeing to scrap his legislation and resume talks. The union agreed to call off what it had labelled a “political protest” and return to schools on Tuesday.
Talks between the two sides resumed on Tuesday morning. But both the opposition NDP and the union expressed concern that the government was not recalling the legislature immediately to scrap Bill 28, something the government does not plan to do until the House resumes on Monday.
Plus, Mr. Ford would not rule out using the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, officially Section 33 of the document, again. The clause allows governments to insulate laws that violate a long list of rights – free association, in this case, but also free speech, freedom of religion and protections against arbitrary detention, among others – from constitutional court challenges.
Mr. Ford defended Section 33 on Tuesday it as a “legal tool in the Constitution.” No other Ontario Premier has invoked it since the Charter’s inception in 1982. Mr. Ford has included it in legislation put before the legislature three times in his four years in office. It had never been used to strip workers of their right to strike, which was deemed protected by the Charter in a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling.
“I don’t like using Section 33, believe me I don’t,” he said. “It’s the only tool we had at the end of the day.”
The contracts for all of Ontario’s education unions, including teachers’ unions, expired at the end of August. They are all in negotiations with the government. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said its bargaining team for education workers will be meeting with the government on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and its bargaining team responsible for teachers will be meeting later this month.
The Premier said he thought talks with CUPE last week – when his legislation was poised to be passed – were headed for a deal after his government made an unspecified more generous offer. He said he was “floored” when the talks then broke down on Thursday. He said he now hopes to have a deal by the end of the week.
But Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said her bargaining team can’t sign off on any deal with the government until Bill 28 is repealed – and that she sees no reason for the legislature to wait until Monday.
“Kids are back in school today. We held up our end of the agreement. Why is he pushing his end of the deal off?” she said in an interview.
Ms. Walton said any offer consistent with the Premier’s remarks about offering larger increases to the lowest-paid workers wouldn’t be acceptable, because the union won’t bargain a two-tiered collective agreement. She said the government should instead provide a flat-rate increase to every member of her union.
She also said that last Thursday, the union’s bargaining team heard through the mediator that the government had a new offer. The union asked for it in writing, as is the usual course in bargaining, but it never materialized, she said.
The government had rejected the union’s latest counter-offer 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.
The Premier warned Tuesday that those increases, over four years and spread to the other education unions still in talks, could cost the government “tens of billions of dollars” in increased public-sector salaries.
He also repeated his assertion that CUPE had walked away from the bargaining table, even though the union had remained in talks after it issued the required five-day notice of its intention to strike on Oct. 30.
Asked to clarify, the Premier deferred to his Education Minister, Stephen Lecce. The minister acknowledged both parties were still in talks on Thursday before negotiations were called off by the mediator – who said the parties were too far apart.