Manitoulin schools were closed Friday, November 4 as Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers walked off the job to participate in a province-wide protest, supported locally by OPSEU education workers.
The protest was CUPE’s response to the Ontario government’s passing of Keeping Students in Class Act on Thursday. The Act invoked Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or the notwithstanding clause, to impose a contract on CUPE education workers and pre-emptively ban a strike, while preventing them from challenging the Act in court.
The Ford government introduced the legislation on October 31 and fast-tracked it through the legislature.
“The legislation passed last night so we are on a political protest today,” said Kori Fowler, OSBCU regional lead for Sudbury, CUPE Local 895. Hundreds of workers showed up to the picket lines in Sudbury, with 400 from Local 895 and additional support from other local unions.
The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) had initially planned to keep schools open, but reversed that decision after OPSEU announced it would support the day of protest and withdraw their services on November 4. In a November 3 letter to parents, Director of Education Bruce Bourget wrote, “Given that we are without the service of more than 425 staff members tomorrow, we can no longer ensure the health and safety of students.”
In-person learning classes were cancelled but students enrolled in virtual learning were not affected. Classes for all in-person learners were set to resume on Monday, November 7. CUPE workers will continue their withdrawal of services but educational workers represented by OPSEU will be back in the classroom.
“We value our educational assistants as well as our facilities staff,” Mr. Bourget wrote. “As always, we remain hopeful that an agreement will be reached. We recognize this is a difficult situation for everyone involved.”
On Manitoulin Island, dozens of CUPE workers, mostly cleaners, custodians and maintenance staff for RDSB, protested at the corner of Highways 540 and 551 in M’Chigeeng First Nation, with support from local OPSEU workers, including educational assistants with RDSB.
“With Bill 28 (the legislation that became Keeping Students in Class Act), they are taking away our right to strike, which we have under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Ms. Fowler. “We deserve to have a voice and we’ve fought many years to have this voice. Our locals are willing to stay out and fight the good fight.”
CUPE workers would not be returning to work on Monday unless Bill 128 was repealed, Ms. Fowler said. Under the legislation, workers who strike could be fined up to $4,000 per day and the union could be fined $500,000 per day.
“CUPE has now made the decision to strike, putting their own self-interest head of Ontario’s nearly two million children, who deserve to stay in class, learning,” Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said in a statement. “We are delivering on our promise to parents that our government will do whatever it takes to keep students in class so they can catch up and get back to the basics of learning.”
Mediated talks between the province and the union broke down earlier in October with both sides still far apart on the issue of wages.
“Students are finally back in class catching up, following two years of pandemic disputes,” said Minister Lecce. “We are disappointed that CUPE is refusing to compromise on their demand for a nearly 50 percent increase in compensation, representing a price tag of close to $19 billion if extended across the sector.”
Ms. Fowler said the union wants a $3.25 per hour increase. “We’re not asking for a percentage,” she said. “We are asking for a flat rate across the board for all members. That is not a lot to ask for. The government is putting out that we’re asking for 11 percent and that scares the public, because 11 percent seems like a lot and they think we seem greedy, but at the end of the day it’s not 11 percent.”
“We’re overworked,” she added. “We’re tired. We’re working hours beyond what we’re supposed to be working because they’re not putting a good wage out for people to want to take these jobs and keep these jobs. People quit left, right and center because of the wages. I have people on these picket lines today who have been in these services with the school board for 30 years, and they don’t want to leave their jobs because they love their jobs. They love the people they work with. They love their schools. But they can’t keep making the wage that they’re making.”
The average education worker, across the sector, makes between $39,000 and $45,000 per year, said OPSEU Local 185 President Lise Orsini. In the last 10 years education workers have had collective agreements imposed on them, with total wage increases of just over eight percent over the last decade. Other collective groups across Ontario have average more than twice that.
The Keeping Students in Class Act includes a salary increase of 2.5 percent for workers earning below $43,000 annually and 1.5 percent for employees above that, for each year of the contract.
“Enforcing this legislation on the lowest paid education workers in the education sector is stripping them of their rights of the bargaining process,” said Ms. Orsini. “This legislation is very dangerous because it doesn’t allow you or any union to fight the Charter in the courts. The Ministry in the past has imposed collective agreements on unions; however, they’ve had the ability to fight a Charter challenge.”
OPSEU members are also education workers under the Ministry’s umbrella, in the roles of educational assistants and communicative disorders assistants. CUPE has 55,000 members across the province who are education workers and OPSEU has 8,000 members across Ontario who are education workers. OPSEU unanimously decided that in light of the legislation, “a violation of our constitutional rights,” they would support CUPE today and walk out in support of their trailblazing fight for a livable wage, Ms. Orsini said.
“OPSEU is concerned because if the government is doing this with CUPE, it basically halts the bargaining process for all other unions moving forward,” she added. “As education workers, we’re all making relatively the same range of salary across Ontario and that’s basically what CUPE is trying to get addressed, that it’s not sufficient.”
The government needs to come to an agreement with us, said Ms. Fowler of CUPE Local 895. “They need to actually sit at the table and not just throw legislation at us.”
There was a lot of support for the workers from vehicles driving past as well as parents, she said. “The parents are with us. At the end of the day, we’re huge advocates for their kids. Not only do we have educational assistants who are in the classrooms helping these children one-on-one but we have custodians who are opening the schools, who are cleaning the schools for these children and for their education. We have maintenance and IT to keep parent and teacher communication open, to do online learning if needed. We are backbones of the school. We hold these schools open and they need to respect that. They need to see that we’re doing what we’re doing not only for our rights and for the wage increase but for these children.”
Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor