CUPE workers begin strike in Windsor-Essex for 'long haul,' says local leader

Education workers gather outside Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Andrew Dowie's office on Friday. The English Catholic board closed school buildings amid the strike action. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
Education workers gather outside Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Andrew Dowie's office on Friday. The English Catholic board closed school buildings amid the strike action. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

Dozens of education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) gathered at picket lines in Windsor-Essex and across Ontario on Friday in defiance of provincial legislation.

At least 100 workers began gathering outside of  Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Andrew Dowie's office — one of about 100 locations CUPE members planned to picket at across Ontario.

One local CUPE leader told CBC News he was pleased with the number of people who showed up to support the workers, including parents and students.

"The main message is we want support, we are out here for the children, for the teachers, for the working class and that we don't want a contract imposed on us. We want to negotiate a fair agreement," said Lloyd Tazzman, vice-president of Local CUPE 27 and a custodian at Talbot Trail Public School in Windsor.

"Our fight isn't with the school boards; our fight is with the government that we need the funding for all sectors of the school board."

WATCH | Two people share why they've joined picket lines in Windsor:

Tazzman said members will continue the strike indefinitely.

"I don't think anybody wants to strike. I don't think there's a clear winner in every strike, but I think we have to stand up for our rights and I think their in the long haul," he said.

However, some of the workers are in fear of fines for violating a prohibition on strikes, imposed by the Ontario government.

Darrin Di Carlo/CBC
Darrin Di Carlo/CBC

On Thursday, the Progressive Conservative government enacted Bill 28, a law that imposed contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned them from striking. The law also uses the notwithstanding clause to protect against constitutional challenges — a legal mechanism that has only been used twice in Ontario's history, both times by the governments of Premier Doug Ford.

CUPE says the law is an attack on all workers' bargaining rights and is staging a walkout anyway, warning that it will last until the government repeals the bill.

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, while there are fines of up to $500,000 for the union.

Darrin Di Carlo/CBC
Darrin Di Carlo/CBC

"I think they are concerned about fines, yes," Tazzman said Friday amid the local protest. "But I think they have to make a stand and support everybody that's out here."

In a statement issued early Friday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the ministry has already filed a submission to the Ontario Labour Relations Board in response to the "illegal strike action."

He reiterated that the government "will use every tool available" to get students back in classrooms.

English Catholic board cancels in-person classes Friday

The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB) has closed schools for the day. Roughly 400 staff, including educational assistants, are represented by the union at the board.

The WECDSB said all non-CUPE staff are expected to report to work and students can expect their teachers — who are not part of this union — will provide online assignments for the day.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

The City of Windsor is offering child care at three locations: the Optimist Community Centre, Forest Glade Community Centre and the Capri Pizzeria Recreation Complex. Parents can register online or show up at one of the centres.

Schools in the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) are open. Around 600 employees, including secretaries and maintenance workers, are part of the union, but not educational assistants or early childhood educators.

The French Catholic School Board, Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, is conducting online learning for elementary and secondary students.

The French public board, Conseil scolaire Viamonde, said on Monday that it has the capacity to keep schools open for a few days in the event of a strike.

CUPE says its members will picket outside the offices of MPPs across the province on Friday, and some other unions are vowing to support them.

Jennifer La Grassa
Jennifer La Grassa

The strike comes after mediation between the Ontario government and CUPE failed to result in a deal.

Deandre Dailey, a custodian at the GECDSB who said he'll be taking part in the job action, wants to see wages rise. He spoke out against the legislation.

"It goes against the rights, the freedom that everybody's fought for already," he said on Thursday. "I think that you can't go against that."

Strike on until workers decide otherwise: union

Union leaders said education workers will be off the job "until our members decide otherwise."

"We are on strike until this government recognizes that you can put in all of the legislation in place, but you cannot control a worker's movement that is so fed up with your overreach," said Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

Lecce said the government had no choice but to proceed with its legislation, which includes the notwithstanding clause allowing the legislature to override parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.

"For the sake of Ontario's two million students, to keep classrooms open, CUPE has left us with no choice but to pass the Keeping Kids in Class Act," he said.

Lecce said he has instructed school boards to do everything they can to keep classes going.

Boards including the Lambton Kent District School Board, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board and many in the Greater Toronto Area have cancelled classes.