The Ontario government filed an application with the labour board to stop job action from a union of 55,000 education support workers who walked off the job on Friday to defy the passing of a bill that stripped them of their right to strike.
Proceedings at the Ontario Labour Relations Board started Thursday night and will continue on Friday.
“Nothing matters more right now than getting students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to us to do so,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement Friday morning.
Education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees are picketing at politicians’ offices today, including hundreds who are outside the Education Minister’s constituency office in Vaughan, Ont., along with a large protest planned for the legislature, where hundreds of people are already gathering on the lawn.
On Thursday, Ontario used the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to strip an education workers union of its right to strike in an attempt to avoid disrupting classrooms. However, many schools were closed Friday, and more than a million students were at home, as the union defied the government and walked out.
After contract talks broke off Thursday, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford passed fast-tracked legislation that imposes a contract on the union, a wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees that acts for 55,000 education assistants, custodians and other support staff. About 30 CUPE members, including union leaders, chanted “shame” from the public galleries during the vote, before being escorted out. Mr. Ford was absent.
Several large school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, have closed schools, leaving parents scrambling for child care. Under the legislation, the union and its members face the threat of hefty fines for striking: up to $4,000 a day for individual members and up to $500,000 a day for the union, which has said it will cover those costs and attempt to fight the fines in court.
The legislation imposes a contract on the union that includes 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more, raises far below the union’s demands. It also blocks the union from striking. And it uses the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to exempt the legislation from sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Lecce said the legislation was needed to keep children in class after their learning was disrupted earlier in the pandemic, and by past labour strife. He warned that any strike action by the union would now be illegal. He also said teachers would be expected to offer “live learning,” even though several boards have already said they would shut classrooms in the face of a potential strike.
“We will use every tool we have to end their disruption,” the minister told reporters.
The union at the centre of the battle, CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU), plans to picket at MPP’s offices and intends to gather for a rally outside Queen’s Park on Friday.
OSBCU president Laura Walton told reporters that her workers will strike “for as long as it takes,” despite the legislation.
CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the government’s action to take away the right to strike is unprecedented in labour history and that the union will fight back. Support for the union’s cause has been growing across the province, Mr. Hahn said, pointing to the backing of several unions and a rally organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour earlier this week.
“They don’t know what they have started here,” Mr. Hahn said. “It is just not okay for them to think that they can take the nuclear approach to collective bargaining.”
The Premier’s use of the notwithstanding clause has also prompted criticism from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke with Mr. Ford by phone late Wednesday about the issue, and federal Justice Minister David Lametti, who has mused about intervening but has not provided specifics.
On Thursday, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called Ontario’s bill a “catastrophe” for Charter rights, warning that the growing “casual” use of the clause puts other rights – free speech, freedom of religion, the protection against torture – at risk. The group said provincial governments and Ottawa must pledge to renounce its use and scrap it altogether.
The clause had never been applied in Ontario before Mr. Ford took office, and he has used it or threatened to use it three times since 2018. It has been invoked more frequently in Quebec and in Alberta and Saskatchewan since the Charter took effect in 1982. Constitutional experts and its drafters maintain it was meant to be used only in extreme circumstances.
The day began with contract talks between the union, school boards and the government still under way. Emerging from a midday meeting at Queen’s Park with Mr. Lecce and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton and senior civil servants, the Premier offered a quick response to a reporter who asked if a deal was in the making: “We’re working on it.”
But about two hours later, the union said talks had ended. Mr. Lecce said the mediator had called off negotiations as the parties were too far apart.
OSBCU’s president, Ms. Walton, said the government wouldn’t budge on the terms of the contract imposed by its legislation, after rejecting a union counteroffer on Wednesday. That offer included roughly 6-per-cent annual increases for workers that the union said have long been underpaid and make on average $39,000 a year. The union had previously demanded 11.7 per cent in annual wage hikes.
“We tried everything. We moved as much as our members could possibly move,” she said. “What is going into place today is a piece of legislation, it is not a deal.”
A memo sent on Thursday from the Ministry of Education to school-board directors, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, said educators should implement “contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible.” It also said that if there are health and safety concerns, boards must make a “speedy transition” to remote learning.
Other unions in the province have voiced support for education workers and spoken out against the use of the notwithstanding clause. Education workers with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which acts for 8,000 such workers, said they would walk off the job Friday in solidarity with those on strike. Some private-sector unions, including the local wing of the Labourers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), which has long supported the Premier, had also urged him to withdraw the bill.
In Question Period on Thursday, NDP interim leader Peter Tabuns, who was ejected from the Legislature on Wednesday along with 15 of his MPPs for disobeying orders of the Speaker in a staged protest of the bill, argued that a forced contract will only encourage workers to leave and cause turmoil in schools.
“This government is going to drive them out the door permanently. That will mean less support for kids with disabilities, less support for the youngest students and less safe schools,” Mr. Tabuns said.
Interim Ontario Liberal leader John Fraser accused the government of bullying low-paid education workers.
Mr. Ford told Question Period on Thursday that the government’s goal was to keep children in class. He said the province was “left no other choice” but to introduce the bill on Monday after the union issued a notice Sunday five days in advance of a legal strike.
-With a file from The Canadian Press