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Laura Walton, educational assistant and president of CUPE's Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, speaks to the media on Thursday, June 23, 2022.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The head of the education support workers’ union at loggerheads with the Ontario government says her members will walk off the job on Friday and could stay out until a contract deal is reached – as Premier Doug Ford pushes ahead with a bill to override Charter rights and suspend the union’s right to strike.

“At this point, without anything changing we are on strike until further notice starting Friday, unless a deal is reached,” said Laura Walton, president of the union acting for 55,000 early childhood educators, caretakers and other support staff across the province, speaking to media Wednesday afternoon.

Talks on a new collective agreement were continuing Wednesday evening between the government, the union and school boards. However, the governing Progressive Conservatives were still rushing a bill through the legislature that would invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and suspend the union’s right to strike. Any walkout under the draft legislation would cost the union millions of dollars in fines. Known as Bill 28, it was expected to be passed sometime on Thursday.

Late Tuesday, the union had submitted a proposed new contract through a mediator. Its details were not made public, but a source involved in the negotiations said the union asked for roughly 6-per-cent raises each year over four years, down from its original request of roughly 11.7 per cent a year. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks.

Ms. Walton told The Globe late Wednesday that the government had turned down the offer but that all parties were still at the table.

The government’s final offer, which would be imposed on the union if the bill now before the legislature passes, would increase wages by 2.5 per cent each year for workers earning less than $43,000, with a 1.5-per-cent annual hike for those earning above that amount. The union said the wage hikes amounted to just 40 to 67 cents more an hour.

What’s the latest in CUPE and Doug Ford’s school fight in Ontario? Bill 28 and labour rights explained

Use of the notwithstanding clause as a political tool becoming more common

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), which represents education works in the Canadian Union Public of Public Employees (CUPE), gave notice on Sunday of its intention to launch a legal strike this Friday. It said the government gave it an “ultimatum” and threatened back-to-work legislation. The strike notice prompted several school boards, including in Toronto and York Region, to announce they would close schools on Friday, leaving parents scrambling to find alternative daycare arrangements. Late Wednesday, the Toronto District School Board said it will keep schools closed for the duration of the education workers’ strike, which the union has said will start Friday and continue indefinitely.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce responded on Monday with the introduction of Bill 28. But the union said it would walk out on Friday anyway in protest, despite the threat of daily fines for $4,000 for each worker and $500,000 for the union.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Walton said OSBCU had made “significant moves in all areas” to reach a deal, and suggested the government was dragging its feet. The union says many of its workers are among the lowest paid in the education sector and work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The government regularly says the union members enjoy generous benefits and sick pay provisions.

Mr. Lecce urged the union to withdraw its strike notice and said the government is willing to negotiate a deal through mediation. All parties have been holed up at a downtown Toronto hotel over the last few days, working with a mediator. Mr. Lecce said the government wouldn’t need to use Bill 28 if the union withdrew its strike notice.

“We’ll always be ready and willing to work with any union to get a deal, but we will not accept a strike this Friday or any day,” Mr. Lecce said. “The union needs to take the strike off the table.”

The notwithstanding clause allows legislation that would otherwise face court challenges for violating key provisions in the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. It had never been used in Ontario until Mr. Ford’s government, which has now used or threatened to use it three times.

Mr. Lecce said the government needed to take the “last resort” step of invoking the clause because of the toll pandemic school closings had taken on students and their parents.

“This is not a normal time for kids,” he said, going on to list education labour disruptions going back to the 1990s. “This is a different time. These kids are in a different place. And they need leadership to stand up and make sure they’re in schools.”

The government is also in talks with its teachers’ unions, but those negotiations are in much earlier stages. However, Mr. Lecce did not rule out using the notwithstanding clause again.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, told reporters at Queen’s Park that the government’s tactics sent a message.

“What we see happening to CUPE really appears to be something that’s in our future as well,” she said.

She said her members would report for work as usual in the event of a strike but would find ways to support strike CUPE members.

Ms. Walton said her members will protest outside MPP offices on Friday, not schools. But already, several boards are shuttering their doors because they say they can’t operate safely without members represented by OSBCU. If a deal is reached at the eleventh hour, some boards, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the York Region District School Board, indicated that they would do their best to open schools on Friday.

Earlier on Wednesday, the opposition NDP at Queen’s Park used Question Period to stage a protest of the government’s bill, as a steady stream of more than a dozen MPPs were ejected by the Speaker for yelling or calling Mr. Ford or the government liars, a breach of legislative rules.

Interim NDP leader Peter Tabuns was the first to go, escorted from his seat by the Sergeant-at-Arms for refusing to withdraw his comment accusing the government of lying. Outside the chamber, he said the government wasn’t telling the truth about putting students first, noting its refusal to lower class sizes in the pandemic.

“Let’s face it, there’s only so much of this you can stomach,” Mr. Tabuns said of the government’s defences of its bill. “All we are getting from this government is hot air and bullying.”

The battle over Ontario’s use of the notwithstanding clause also spread to the House of Commons on Wednesday, a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the move and Justice Minister David Lametti suggested Ottawa could intervene. Neither politician has provided any specifics.

In Question Period, Mr. Trudeau doubled down on his criticism of Ontario’s move and challenged Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to take the side of workers and condemn the use of the clause.

“The clause must only be used in the most exceptional of circumstances and like the Leader of the NDP, I call out the Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada who stands for rights and freedoms supposedly to condemn the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause,” Mr. Trudeau told the House.

The Prime Minister’s Office said late Wednesday that Mr. Trudeau spoke with Mr. Ford by phone and “emphasized the critical importance of standing up for Canadians’ rights and freedoms, including workers’ rights.”

Mr. Ford’s office said in a statement Wednesday night that the Premier told Mr. Trudeau that his government “is determined, if necessary, to pass legislation to keep classrooms open” after more than two years of pandemic disruptions.

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