The Ontario government has repealed controversial legislation that imposed a contract on education support workers and used the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to ban their right to strike.
The legislation, known as Bill 28, was rescinded on Monday, the first day the legislature was sitting after a week-long break. The repeal of the bill rips up a contract imposed on 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees education workers and deems it to never have been in force, allowing the parties to negotiate a new contract.
Laura Walton, president of Ontario School Board Council of Unions, an affiliate of CUPE that represents the workers, said the parties started talking last week, and were “far apart” in reaching a negotiated deal. The possibility of the union issuing another five-day strike notice would be determined in the “next few days” depending on the progress of negotiations, she said.
On Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who introduced the bill, was absent from the vote. Opposition parties voted in favour of repealing the legislation. Dozens of CUPE members sat in the gallery of Queen’s Park to watch the proceedings and cheered in the halls of the provincial legislature after the bill was repealed.
Ms. Walton said she felt “vindicated” after the vote. Talks resumed through a mediator last week.
“I really hope it serves as a message: You cannot strip the rights of workers away,” Ms. Walton said. “The country and this province, they were built on workers exercising their rights. It was never built on politicians stripping them away.”
On Nov. 7, Premier Doug Ford vowed to repeal Bill 28 – four days after his government passed the legislation in a bid to keep education workers from striking.
Mr. Ford’s unprecedented move too fast-track legislation sparked widespread condemnation in the labour movement, including from private-sector unions that the government counts as supporters, as well as from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The use of the notwithstanding clause in the legislation allowed the government to insulate laws that violate a long list of rights from court challenges.
At the time, the government said the bill was needed to keep students in school after more than two years of pandemic-related disruptions. On Oct. 30, CUPE had given its required five days’ notice of a legal strike after contract talks reached an impasse.
Union members walked off the job for two days in defiance of the legislation, which resulted in many schools across the province closing their doors. The union represents support workers that include caretakers, education assistants and early childhood educators.
The weekend after the bill was passed, labour leaders from across the country huddled in hours-long virtual conference calls to plan potential nationwide protests that would have temporarily shut down the province’s auto plants, the country’s ports and even the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island.
In Ontario, unions were planning demonstrations for last Saturday at Queen’s Park and a provincewide “political protest” on Monday that would have hit many parts of the economy.
The unions called off the action and claimed victory after Mr. Ford announced he would repeal the legislation. CUPE workers returned to schools last Tuesday.
Mark Hancock, CUPE’s national president, said on Monday that no government had ever scrapped its own legislation as quickly as Mr. Ford did with Bill 28.
“Workers have put Doug Ford and any other premier that might try and undermine our rights on notice,” he said. “We’re organized and we’re ready to fight.”
The government said it was offering a two-tiered wage increase to provide more support for lower-income workers, those who are part-time or making an annual income around $40,000. Ms. Walton said the union was pushing for a flat rate increase for all its members.
The contract that the government had sought to impose unilaterally in the strike-ban legislation last week included 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent increases for those earning more – much lower than the union’s demands.
This marked the third time Mr. Ford has used or threatened to use the notwithstanding clause, the first Ontario premier to do so. Mr. Ford hasn’t ruled out using the clause again in the future, calling it a “legal tool in the constitution.”
At a news conference in Toronto’s Etobicoke suburb Sunday morning, Mr. Ford said he didn’t regret using the clause because his main goal was to keep students in class. He argued that the union going on strike was “more concerning” than the government’s legislation because of its effect on the economy, with many parents needing to stay home from work to take care of their children.
“The most heavy-handed thing you could ever do is walk out on kids, walk out on parents and stall the economy,” he said.
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.