No 'tolerance for disruption,' Lecce says as fight against education workers' walkout continues

Striking CUPE education workers and their supporters rally at a busy Sudbury intersection Friday, part of a province-wide walkout by 55,000 secretaries, custodians and education assistants.  (Erik White/CBC  - image credit)
Striking CUPE education workers and their supporters rally at a busy Sudbury intersection Friday, part of a province-wide walkout by 55,000 secretaries, custodians and education assistants. (Erik White/CBC - image credit)

Ontario's education minister says the province has no "tolerance for disruption," as the hearing to determine the legality of a walkout by education workers continues this weekend.

A government lawyer argued Saturday during the hearing that Ontario Labour Relations Board risks undermining the province's labour laws if it fails to declare a walkout by 55,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) illegal.

"Ensuring that an unlawful strike is not allowed to continue is a very important labour relations purpose, and if you did not exercise your discretion to do so, it would significantly undermine the very clear prohibition on strike activity that is a key feature of the Labour Relations Act," Ferina Merji said.

Thousands of education workers, including education assistants, custodians and librarians, walked off the job on Friday to protest the government passing legislation that banned strikes and imposed a four-year contract.

The Progressive Conservative government included the notwithstanding clause in its education-worker legislation, saying it intends to use it to guard against constitutional challenges.

"We don't have tolerance for disruption. We made it very clear in the summer through the plan to catch up, kids have to stay in school," Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CBC News on Saturday.

Lecce has said the government had no choice but to proceed with its legislation to avert a strike and keep students in classrooms after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for the past few years.

WATCH | Lecce says province will continue to use every tool to open schools:

Laura Walton, president of CUPE Ontario's School Board Council of Unions, said the Ontario government was bargaining "in bad faith."

"The fact that they were working on this legislation before any strike notice was provided should tell the people of Ontario all you need to know," Walton told CBC News on Saturday.

"They had no intent to ever bargain in good faith. As a matter of fact coming to a table and saying if you do not remove your right to strike then we're not going to be bargaining is really ... the definition of bad faith bargaining."

Province argues work stoppage equivalent to strike

CUPE contends the labour action is a political protest rather than a strike.

It argued in its board filings that the goal of its members' action is "to express opposition through political protest to the [province's] decision to trample upon employees' constitutionally protected right to collectively bargain and right to strike."

"Irrespective of what label anyone puts on the activity, Mr. Chair, it is a work stoppage. And a work stoppage, with any other name, still amounts to a work stoppage and therefore a strike, full stop," Merji told the hearing.

Merji said the government's conduct at the bargaining table is irrelevant in an unlawful strike application, and is instead the purview of an unfair labour practice complaint.

Merji said such a walkout is illegal because the Labour Relations Act prohibits work stoppages while contracts are in operation, and argued that CUPE leadership knowingly advised education workers to engage in an illegal strike.

WATCH | CUPE representative reacts to education minister's comments:

She played video of CUPE-Ontario President Fred Hahn saying the union would provide the same benefits to workers that it does in any strike.

Merji also shared video of Laura Walton, president of CUPE Ontario's School Board Council of Unions, comparing the walkout to one that was planned in 2019. Back then, CUPE and the government reached a last-minute deal the day before workers had been set to go on a full strike.

CUPE had originally requested that both Lecce and Andrew Davis, the assistant deputy minister, be called to testify before the board.

Board Chair Brian O'Byrne ruled that Lecce is exempt from testifying due to parliamentary privilege, but said Davis could be called to testify.

But after hours of delays, a lawyer for CUPE said he would not call upon Davis to provide evidence, because documents the union also wanted to have submitted into evidence could not be made available.

What CUPE workers are protesting

CUPE workers walked out Friday which is what they called the beginning of an indefinite walkout in protest of the government passing the controversial legislation. Members of other unions, including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and Unifor, also joined the picketers.

The British Columbia Teachers' Federation announced Saturday afternoon that it voted to send $1 million so CUPE members "don't have to back down."

The government's new law has set fines for violating the ban on strikes of up to $4,000 per employee per day — which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers — and up to $500,000 per day for the union. CUPE has said it will fight the fines, but will also pay them if it has to.

Solidarity protest kicks off Saturday

Education workers and supporters took over Toronto's Yonge and Dundas and other busy intersections across the province on Saturday to show solidarity with CUPE amid the ongoing labour action.

"We know that everybody has a right to bargain," said Ned Sharp, a York Region District School Board teacher at the rally.

Greg Bruce/CBC
Greg Bruce/CBC

The walkout has led the vast majority of school boards in the province to shut down in-person learning, with many saying they'll move to full online learning next week if the labour action continues.

The school closures have also impacted childcare arrangements for thousands of parents across Ontario, with many scrambling to find last-minute caretakers or take off work to help their kids learn remotely.

While students should be in class, she says they should only be in school with proper supports that CUPE education workers help provide.

"There's not enough money for them, there's not enough time for them, there's not enough of them in any of our schools. And we need to make that change because teachers can't work without our education workers with us."

Walkout's impact on parents, students

Traci Clarke, a parent, volunteer and a member of the Special Education Advisory Committee in Ottawa, agrees.

She has a 19-year-old son on the autism spectrum and says when schools closed down, she gave him the choice to either learn online, or go with his dad, an educational worker, to their nearest picket line.

"He's done with online learning. He doesn't ever want to do it again," said Clarke.

WATCH | Ontario parents on how the educational workers' walkout has impacted their families:

Heather Donovan, a parent of a 12-year-old who was diagnosed with dyslexia, says her son also struggles with online learning.

While she understands why the workers are striking, she said she wonders if everything was done to prevent this from happening.

"Everybody is struggling and this is the last thing our children need right now," said Donovan.

"I just feel that this was such a drastic decision and not enough other options were put out there."