CUPE to end Ontario education worker protests after Ford promises legislation repeal

TORONTO — More than 50,000 Ontario education workers will be back at work Tuesday after a walkout that closed hundreds of schools, their union said, after Premier Doug Ford promised to repeal a controversial law that imposed contracts on them.

Canadian Union of Public Employees leaders claimed victory in their fight against the law, which includes a pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, and which they called an attack on the rights of all Canadians.

"(Workers) took on the Ford government and the government blinked," said CUPE national president Mark Hancock.

Hancock made the announcement on a stage filled with more than a dozen leaders of other public- and private-sector unions, including the four major teachers' unions, steel workers, postal workers, Unifor, and the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union.

Opposition to the law had been gathering steam over the past several days and the unions used the press conference to give Ford a glimpse of what he faced had he not promised Monday morning to repeal the law.

"When you come for one of us, you come for all of us," said JP Hornick, president of OPSEU. "The workers, united, will shut this province down whenever we need to."

Ford said Monday morning that he would repeal the law, but only if CUPE employees stopped their walkout, describing his offer as "a massive olive branch."

"As a gesture of good faith, our government is willing to rescind the legislation, willing to rescind (the notwithstanding clause), but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike," he said at a news conference at the legislature, as a large crowd of protesters chanted outside.

"I desperately hope that CUPE shows the same willingness to compromise as we are today. I hope they hear my plea to keep students in class, but that’s not something I can guarantee you."

Hundreds of thousands of students were out of the classroom for a second day Monday, as many schools were closed to in-person learning as a result of the walkout by workers that included education assistants, librarians and custodians.

Many school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, said they would reopen Tuesday for in-person learning in light of the latest developments.

Ford said after CUPE's press conference that he was glad kids could return to class.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the education-worker bill would be revoked "at the earliest opportunity." The legislature is on a previously scheduled break this week and it is unclear if the government would recall it to rescind the law.

The government had originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but the four-year deal imposed by the law gave 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.

CUPE said that framing was not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn't get 2.5 per cent.

CUPE had originally been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent as well as overtime at two times the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and ECEs, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said a union counter offer tabled last week cut its wage proposal in half and made "substantial" moves in other areas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press