'Hold the Line': Hundreds in Sudbury turn out for CUPE protest

The sidewalk along Barrydowne was packed Friday as education workers and supporters came out in droves to protest the provincial government's decision to impose a new contract and stop them from striking.

Hundreds joined the picket line throughout the day, carrying signs and flags with messages of solidarity.

The more than 300 local CUPE education workers in Sudbury — which include custodians, librarians and early childhood educators — were among those in the crowd, but they were far from the only ones. Members from half a dozen other unions, representing a wide array of industries, also sported their own branded hats and sweaters to ensure their support was known.

Charity Sedore, president of CUPE Local 2369, said it's been an emotional week.

“The amount of support I have received in the last few days, I can’t even begin to describe how I’m feeling," she said. "People are standing with us. I have people reaching out to me from across the country, telling me they are standing with us today.”

For many of the Sudbury workers represented by CUPE, this contract negotiation is an important one.

The union represents some of the lowest paid workers in the education system, many of who are struggling to keep up with workloads due to chronic understaffing, according to the union.

For Sedore, it's become increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

“The workers I represent, they don’t make enough to live," she said. "We don’t make enough to buy groceries at the grocery store. I myself go to a food bank every week and that’s how I feed my children. I would love to be able to walk into a grocery store and when my seven-year-old asks for a bag of chips, be able to afford to buy it.”

Because of legislation the provincial government passed Thursday, the protest was technically illegal. The Conservative government's Bill 28, or the Keep Students in School Act, legislatively imposed a contract on 55,000 CUPE workers across the province, and made it illegal for them to strike.

In a rare move, the government invoked the notwithstanding clause to pass the law, thereby protecting it from any legal challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada's constitution gives workers the right to bargain and to strike.

“I was disgusted. I was literally sick to my stomach," Sedore said of the decision. "I feel betrayed. I feel violated by this government. The government that is supposed to protect us and protect our rights is taking those rights away from all Ontario workers.”

The new legislation also imposes fines on both workers and unions for participating in strike action. Workers could be fined $4,000 per day for striking, while unions may need to pay up to $500,000.

But these threats didn't stop workers in Sudbury.

Trevor Mantel, a member of CUPE Local 1369 who works for the Sudbury Catholic District School Board, said his union isn't planning on backing down.

“We are going to stand in solidarity until we are offered something fair and we are not going to accept the legislation being rammed down our throats," he said. "We are not going to accept having our rights taken away from us, because that’s just not the way democracy works. And last I checked, Ontario was supposed to be a democracy.”

In the last few days, Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the province needed to take such drastic action to prevent school closures. He said the government had made a "good faith effort" to negotiate but that CUPE refused to take the threat of a strike of the table.

"For the sake of Ontario's two million students, to keep classrooms open, CUPE has left us with no choice but the pass the Keeping Students in Class Act," he said. "If they proceed with (the protest), it will be illegal."

Mantel said he doesn't appreciate Lecce's efforts to pit the blame for closures on workers.

"During COVID, it was the government that dictated when students would or would not be in school, not CUPE workers," he said. "When the students weren’t in school, a lot of us were. I think they need to take a look in the mirror because they’re attacking us and taking away our constitutional rights for the choices they made.”

For many unionized workers, the province's decision to use the notwithstanding clause was not a surprise. This is the third time in four years that Premier Doug Ford tried to use it to pass legislation.

"It's a scary time to live in where a government callously uses a piece of legislation, which should never been used frankly, to impede on our rights to withdraw labour," said D'Arcy Gauthier, president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council.

“We’ve seen Doug Ford use that heavy hand to strip away rights. They’ve been meaning to do this for a long time. This just gave them the opportunity.”

Liana Holms, president of ETFO Rainbow Teacher Local, said CUPE's fight will set a precedent for workers across the industry.

“Education workers are all in this together," she said. "The writing’s on the wall that we are next. It is an absolute atrocity to bargaining and to labour rights everywhere. This is going to be wide-reaching and it’s absolutely something that we need to stand up and say no to."

She added that she doesn't know how the fight will end, but that she and others plan to stick with it.

“I know that the first step is standing up and saying we’re not going to take this. That’s where we are now and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

mjensen@postmedia.com

Twitter: @mia_rjensen

Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star