CUPE members hit picket lines as indefinite education strike begins

Thousands of Ontario education workers hit picket lines across the province Friday morning, honking noisemakers, waving flags and chanting "stand up, fight back," on the first day of an indefinite and illegal strike that's shut many schools.

A day earlier, the Progressive Conservative government enacted a law imposing a contract on 55,000 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees and banned them from striking, pre-emptively using the notwithstanding clause to guard against constitutional challenges.

But CUPE began a strike anyway, and the government is taking them to the labour board over it, with a hearing set for later Friday.

Striking workers spread out over the lawn in front of the legislature in Toronto while others marched in a line around the building. CUPE members – who include education assistants, custodians and librarians – also gathered outside politicians offices across the province, including Education Minister Stephen Lecce's constituency office in Vaughan, Ont.

Aaron Guppy, a caretaker at the York Region District School Board, said he was fighting not only for himself, but for all workers.

"If they take away our rights as a union, every other union is next. They are not going to stop with just us," he said outside Lecce's office.

"We are just here to basically show that we are not going to back down, we are not going to take this terrible deal. The people support us."

Outside the legislature, Janet Johnson, a special needs assistant, said people can't afford to live on $39,000 a year, even with the wage increases that come with the imposed contract.

"It's not just about the money and the benefits," she said. "It's about being recognized for being a necessity in the school system and that we're professionals."

Evan Giannis, also a special needs assistant, said a better deal for education workers would have meant the school system could better retain workers such as himself, who are in short supply and who are necessary to ensure children with disabilities can participate in school.

"I keep hearing this constant rhetoric that 'Oh, the children, they need school, they can't afford to miss a day of school,'" he said. "How about the constant children that miss school that don't have enough support? The children that are aren't able to receive support because there's not enough support. Do those children not matter?"

Lecce said the government filed a submission to the labour board immediately following the passage of the legislation Thursday night and proceedings are continuing Friday.

"Nothing matters more right now than getting all students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to us to do so,” he wrote in a statement.

The law sets out fines for violating a prohibition on strikes for the life of the agreement of up to $4,000 per employee per day – which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers – while there are fines of up to $500,000 for the union.

CUPE plans to fight the fines, but has also said that if it has to pay the penalties if it has to. CUPE leaders have previously suggested that the union is looking for outside financial help from other labour groups.

Many school boards across the province, including the Toronto District School Board, have said schools will be closed during a strike, while others plan to move to remote learning. Several have not yet outlined plans for next week, should the strike go on that long.

In Milton, Ont., part of the Halton District School Board, which kept schools open Friday, parent Yasir Aziz, said he thinks the strike is "complicated" and worries about what happens if the board cancels classes in the event of an extended strike.

"The problem that we have, like parents, is that we're working," said Aziz as he dropped his kids off at school. "I can't leave my work, same for my wife. No one is at home to take care of them."

The Ministry of Education has urged school boards to "implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible" and otherwise "must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning."

The government 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 Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.

CUPE has said that framing is 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 has said its workers, who make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and had been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent.

The union said it cut its wage proposal by more than half in a counter-offer it gave the government Tuesday night and made "substantial" moves in other areas as well. However, the government said it would not negotiate unless CUPE cancelled the strike.

Members of many other unions are set to join CUPE members on the picket lines.

- with files from Jessica Smith in Milton, Ont.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

Allison Jones in Toronto and Sharif Hassan in Vaughan, Ont., The Canadian Press