Ford backtracks on anti-strike law

School is back on for two million Ontario students starting Tuesday after Premier Doug Ford promised to repeal a new anti-strike law issued last week following two days of demonstrations by education workers that sparked broader solidarity from organized labour.

“We won. They backed down,” Sharron Flynn-Bennett, a union organizer and special education worker in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said outside Queen’s Park on Monday.

“They've given us back our rights to bargain. They’ve re-enacted our Charter rights, the notwithstanding clause is gone. I'm thrilled; it's amazing,” she said, hours after the offer was made inside the legislative building. Thousands of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had amassed outside to protest.

It was an abrupt turn from the Ford government, which last week rushed through legislation that sought to override education workers’ Charter-protected right to collectively bargain and imposed a below-inflation pay raise on tens of thousands of the province’s lowest-paid education workers.

Some 55,000 educational assistants, early childhood educators, school librarians and janitorial staff walked off the job Friday, and several thousand were at Queen’s Park on Monday despite the law banning them from doing so.

“I think someone came down to their senses and they figured this out, that we're not gonna back out from the situation, we're going to continue because we know what we're worth and we know what we deserve,” said Sanja Petrovic, who works at Kimberly Public School and brought her Grade 10 daughter along to the protest.

“I think it’s really sad for the children,” she said, blaming the government for not making it a priority to get a deal done. “They had enough time to figure it out.”

The rapid change in direction now means the two sides will be back at the negotiating table to try to reach a deal after a summer of on-off talks that escalated quickly over the last week.

But it doesn’t solve the problem that many of those attending the protest in front of Queen’s Park and marching around its perimeter described: a system where services have been diminished and jobs made to stretch and compensate for years of receding budgets and growing backlogs.

Those who spoke to Canada’s National Observer also talked about the extra challenges at school since the COVID-19 pandemic began, from an educational assistant encountering more instances of behavioural challenges to a janitor responsible for much more involved cleaning work.

“There was a lot of aggression (after the pandemic began), a lot of it was tough to watch,” said one Toronto District School Board (TDSB) employee with 20 years of experience who now also has a full-time cashier job in the evenings. “Some students were really frustrated and upset and not understanding why they were at home and seeing us on the computer.”

The government initially offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others. Bill 28 enforced a slightly improved 2.5 per cent annual raise for those making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for others, locked in for four years.

CUPE says most workers earning less than $43,000 in a year wouldn't end up with a 2.5 per cent raise due to pay specifics. 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 last week and made "substantial" moves in other areas as well.

But Flynn-Bennett, who is chair of a CUPE mobilization committee, said members have been telling her in conversations over the past several months that they need more than just pay that keeps up with the soaring cost of living.

“They need respect, they need service supports,” she said. “A lot of them are on the brink of leaving; it's a different job than it was 10 years ago.”

Ford presented his about-face on Monday as an olive branch of sorts, a good faith offer that would require CUPE to call off its strike.

“We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents and fair for taxpayers, and we know we can get there,” Ford said at a news conference with Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, later echoed some of the same language but excluded taxpayers from the list. The union and other critics say Ford’s government has consistently sought to cut into public education funding.

“Our goal has been, and it remains, to get a fair deal that respects workers, students and families,” she said, flanked by several of the union’s broader provincial and national leaders and others.

CUPE — a broad union representing workers in industries from energy to child care to transport — had expressed a willingness to widen the protest next Monday. The notion of a general strike had some favour in the crowd, but Ford and Lecce’s renewed interest in talking means that won’t be required at this point.

"CUPE has agreed to withdraw their strike action and come back to the negotiating table. In return, at the earliest opportunity, we will revoke Bill 28 in its entirety and be at the table so that kids can return to the classroom after two difficult years," Lecce said.

With the legislature not currently sitting, MPPs would need to be called back early for the law to be repealed this week. Interim NDP leader Peter Tabuns said his party’s members are ready to return on Tuesday.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer