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CUPE Ontario members and supporters wave signs and flags as they demonstrate outside of the Queen's Park Legislative Building in Toronto on Nov. 4, 2022.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press


The latest

  • CUPE to end education worker strikes in Ontario after Ford 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 education support workers vow to continue their walkout this week in defiance of government legislation that prohibits their right to strike as many school boards plan to keep their doors closed and are scrambling to relaunch remote learning for students.

The job action by 55,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees will persist, the union says, regardless of a pending decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) on the legality of the walkout.

The OLRB hearing ended on Sunday afternoon after starting late Thursday night. Board chair Brian O’Byrne said a written decision would be released as early as Sunday night.

Several large boards, including the Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board and the York Region District School Board, are among those who said on Sunday that their schools would be closed for as long as workers remain off the job.

School officials say that students would have to work independently on assignments on Monday, and were hopeful to transition to teacher-led remote instruction as early as Tuesday, if the job action continues. Boards were working to get technological devices into the hands of thousands of students.

CUPE education support workers walked off the job on Friday after Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government imposed a four-year contract on the union and banned its right to strike by invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause. These workers include early childhood educators, education assistants, custodians and other support staff.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, told The Globe and Mail in an interview Sunday that the union would continue its protests until the province repeals the legislation.

“This is the very last thing that any of our members would want to do. They would much rather be able to use their skills and their passion in their workplaces as they do normally every day,” he said. “But what we began on Friday is what we will continue on Monday and we will continue beyond that until we get fairness and justice for our workers.”

The anger against Mr. Ford’s government is spreading beyond the education sector. National and provincial labour leaders, including those from CUPE, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress, have scheduled a news conference on Monday morning to discuss next steps regarding their fight against the government’s legislation, known as Bill 28.

Two sources with knowledge of the plan said a protest is planned for next Saturday, and that unions are expected to call on their members to walk off the job on Nov. 14. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Meanwhile, families who experienced the longest school closings to in-person learning in the country earlier in the pandemic are despairing once again as they try to attend to their children’s mental well-being and worry about the loss of extracurricular activities and face-to-face learning.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement on Sunday that the government is “doing everything possible and using every tool available” to get students back in the classroom after more than two years of pandemic-related learning disruptions.

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Lawyers for the province argued before the OLRB that CUPE’s job action was unlawful because a new contract came into effect with the passage of legislation.

In its application to the labour board, the province sought an “unlawful strike declaration” against CUPE and an order “directing that any and all unlawful strike activity immediately cease.”

Steven Barrett, lawyer for the union, argued that the only option left for workers was to protest against the government stripping their Charter-protected rights. CUPE argued in its submission that the job action was not a strike, but rather a “legitimate political protest” to oppose the government’s “decision to trample upon employees’ constitutionally protected right to collectively bargain and right to strike.”

CUPE members set up picket lines outside politicians’ offices and the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park on Friday.

The union faces hefty fines for its actions under the legislation: up to $4,000 a day for each worker who walks out, and up to $500,000 a day for the union.

Mr. Hahn said the union plans to fight the fines levied by the province. Several unions, including Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, and the BC Teachers’ Federation, donated money to support the protests.

In a memo to school boards late last week, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe, the government said it wants them to make “every effort” to keep schools open, and that if there are health and safety concerns, the boards must make a “speedy transition” to remote learning. More than a million public school students will be learning remotely.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, said on Sunday that many of the board’s information technology workers are also CUPE members. Late last week, schools had the task of figuring out how many students needed devices such as laptops, and will start to distribute them this week.

“We know that there are thousands of students without devices and so we need to be able to roll out technology relatively quickly,” he said.

The TDSB plans to move to teacher-led remote learning early this week. The board employs nearly 15,000 CUPE workers.

The Halton District School Board, meanwhile, said it would alternate between in-person and remote learning for its elementary schools. Only its custodial staff are CUPE members. Secondary schools will remain open, because, under a local contract, the board can deploy non-unionized staff.

Not all school boards will be moving to online learning. Some, including the Waterloo Region District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said none of their employees are CUPE members, meaning that their classrooms aren’t facing disruptions.

The collective agreement imposed on CUPE by the government’s legislation includes 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent hikes for those earning more. Both raises are far below what the union is demanding.

The government’s use of the notwithstanding clause has led to widespread criticism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media on Friday that he spoke with national union leaders about Ontario’s “inappropriate pre-emptive use” of the clause, and that the federal government “stands firmly with our country’s workers.”

On Oct. 30, the union gave its required five days’ notice of job action after talks had reached an impasse. What followed was a marathon week of talks through a mediator to reach a deal, even as the government was fast-tracking legislation to impose a contract.

The union said the government wouldn’t budge on the terms of the contract imposed by its legislation, after rejecting a union counteroffer on Wednesday. That 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 demanded 11.7-per-cent annual wage hikes.

The contracts of all education unions, including teachers, expired at the end of August. This was widely expected to be a difficult round of bargaining. The other unions are still in discussions with the government.