Kids back in school as labour dispute simmers

While students are back in class, the labour dispute between the Conservative government and education workers is far from over.

Classes returned to normal Tuesday after CUPE educational workers walked off the job Friday and Monday in what they called a political protest.

It followed a week of uncertainty and constitutional chaos in the province.

Oct. 30, CUPE’s leadership notified the province it was prepared to launch a strike Friday if an agreement had not been reached. At the time, the union and provincial bargainers had been meeting with a mediator.

Monday, the Conservative government introduced preemptive back-to-work legislation and began the process to pass it before Friday. The Keeping Kids in School Act not only forced custodians, secretaries, educational workers and early childhood educators to stay on the job, it imposed a four year contract with wage increases of between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent.

CUPE members are the lowest paid educational workers in the province with some making $39,000 per year.

Premier Doug Ford’s bill used the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to suspend collective bargaining rights and the right to strike - a highly unusual move that was widely criticized by everyone from the unions who endorsed Ford in the June election to the Prime Minister.

Tuesday, members of the 55,000 member-strong union were holding information pickets at government offices.

Conservatives passed the bill in a raucous sitting of the house Thursday which saw Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey waving at CUPE members yelling from the gallery - seemingly telling them to leave.

But the union ignored the legislation and members were at MPPs offices Friday in what they called political protests.

Alison Mevis of Petrolia was just one of the many members of the CUPE walking the picket line. The single mother of two is a full-time early childhood educator in a Kindergarten class at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Wyoming. She also has a casual position at the library and she sells Avon.

“My bills are paid, that is about it,” said Mevis. There are no vacations and no savings, she said, adding a vacation for her might be a day at a nearby beach.

“We are here for the kids,” said Mevis.

The workers went back to the MPPs offices Monday, just as the Premier held a news conference where he offered to sit back down at the negotiating table and rescind the imposed contract.

“CUPE please accept this offer…take strike action off the table and get our kids back to school,” said Ford.

Ford added he didn’t regret imposing the back-to-work legislation saying CUPE is at fault for “walking away from the table.”

CUPE had presented another offer to the province Wednesday, however the Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, refused to discuss it unless the union took “strike action off the table.” The provincial mediator then ended the talks saying the two sides were too far apart to reach an agreement.

When Ford was asked Monday if he had miscalculated by passing the legislation he said; “This is nothing we did; this is on CUPE.

“Stop the strike, get into the classroom,” Ford said adding then the negotiations could restart.

“This is a massive olive branch; I’ll rescind Section 33 (the notwithstanding clause which struck down collective bargaining rights) based on them going back into the classroom…Once they do that, we sit down at the table and negotiate a fair deal.

“We need them to come back.”

The government said the legislation would be repealed next Monday.

By noon Monday, CUPE Ontario Karen Walton said Ford had put his plans to repeal the act in writing and declared; “We have our bargaining rights back.”

And at a news conference Tuesday, the premier said the government had tabled another offer. He wouldn’t reveal its contents but continued to say he wanted to help the lowest paid education workers, but had to be aware of giving large increases which other unions would then demand, costing the taxpayers “billions.”

Ford also stood behind his widely criticised move of using the notwithstanding clause to suspend collective bargaining rights, saying Section 33 of the Charter was “another tool” for the government to use in labour disputes.

CUPE countered on Tuesday saying the Ontario Legislature should be recalled so the government could repeal the Act as soon as possible.

“I will say there is no trust,” Michele LaLonge-Davey, Local 1238 president said between Premier Ford and the union, but acknowledged the premier wanting to pull back what it passed last week as “baby steps.”

“We are choosing to behave as trustworthy adults,” said Lalonge-Davey, after it was announced the walkouts would end and the two sides agree to go back to the bargaining table.

While the students were back to class and education workers were back on the job Tuesday, the labour dispute continues to simmer with union leaders, including CUPE’s president, saying they have not given up their right to strike by returning to the schools.

There is a path to head back to the picket line if negotiations break down again, LaLonge-Davey said. It was a comment echoed by the provincial CUPE president.

Walton was flanked by labour leaders at the Toronto news conference, including Mike Hancock CUPE’s national president who said the legislation was “a direct threat to worker rights and…to all Canadians” because the premier used the notwithstanding clause to remove workers’ rights.

And other private sector unions said if the Ford government heads down that path again, they’re willing to step up.

“Our movement is strong and we will stand up for each other.”

Unifor’s president agreed saying the labour movement was prepared with an “unprecedented response.” Lana Payne said Unifor had agreed last night to take whatever action necessary to stop the Ford government from suspending collective bargaining rights.

And while the bargaining continues, local educators are hopeful the students school year will not be affected again.

“We thank you for your patience and support through the uncertainty during the past week,” wrote John Howitt, director of education for the Lambton-Kent District School Board in a letter to parents. “LKDSB is hopeful a fair collective agreement can be reached.”

St. Clair District Catholic School Board Director of Education Scott Sanderson added “We are pleased that our CUPE colleagues will be back in our schools, to continue their important work of supporting our students and families... We recognize that there is still much work to do at the bargaining table...We continue to pray that the two sides will reach an agreement that is fair for all parties.”

, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent