Ontario education workers to go on strike Friday despite new law making it illegal

TORONTO — More than 50,000 Ontario education workers will stage an indefinite strike starting Friday, despite the government enacting a law to make it illegal, with their union warning parents to make alternate arrangements into next week.

Leaders from the Canadian Union of Public Employees have not offered a specific set of circumstances that would lead them to end their walkout once it starts, instead telling parents to make alternate arrangements into next week.

CUPE education workers will be off the job "until our members decide otherwise," union leaders said, despite Ontario imposing a contract on them Thursday in a law that also makes their strike illegal.

"We are on strike until this government recognizes that you can put in all of the legislation in place, but you cannot control a worker movement that is so fed up with your overreach," said Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

Walton said parents should "definitely" make alternate arrangements for child care beyond Friday.

"When my kids were little, I had plans for a snow day, I had plans for you know, any sort of thing," she said. "Parents have contingency plans, always have contingency plans."

Mediation between CUPE and the government concluded Thursday. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government had no choice but to proceed with the legislation, which also relies on the notwithstanding clause to protect against constitutional challenges.

"Today, we made a good-faith effort to reach a fair deal," he said at a news conference hours before the legislation passed.

"But all along, CUPE refused to take strikes and disruption off the table."

CUPE has said its workers, including educational assistants, custodians and administrative staff, will start a strike Friday "until further notice." Many schools will be closed as a result.

The legislation sets out fines for violating a prohibition on strikes for the life of the agreement of up to $4,000 per employee per day, while there are fines of up to $500,000 for the union.

The union has said it would foot the bill for penalties levied against workers, which could cost as much as $220 million per day.

Lecce suggested the government would indeed pursue those penalties.

"You've heard it directly from union leaders that CUPE will strike tomorrow," he said. "If they do so once this legislation is passed, this strike will be illegal and we will use every tool we have to end their disruption."

Candace Rennick, CUPE's national secretary-treasurer, said the union is telling members to report any fines they get to their local president. The union is seeking legal advice, she said.

"If the government of Ontario wants to clog up the justice system with $4,000 per-member-per-day fines, then I say bring it on, we are ready for that fight," Rennick said.

CUPE plans to fight the fines, but at the end of the day if the union has to pay, it will pay, Rennick said. Walton has previously suggested that CUPE is looking for outside financial help from other labour groups.

"It's kind of like a bully asking for your...lunch money every day," Walton said of the fines. "At one point, you're going to have to stand up to that bully, and say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Walton said there is "money coming in from other sources," including parents donating money, to help foot the cost.

Many school boards across the province, including the Toronto District School Board, have said schools will be closed during a strike, while others plan to move to remote learning.

In a memo obtained by The Canadian Press, the Ministry of Education urged school boards to "implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible."

If boards determine they can't safely open schools without the CUPE members, the ministry said "school boards must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning."

The Ontario Public School Boards' Association president said many boards are closing schools.

"Where schools are closed to in-person learning it is because they are unable to maintain the healthy and safe operation of schools for students without these critical education workers," Cathy Abraham said in a statement.

The government originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.

CUPE has said that framing is not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn't get 2.5 per cent.

CUPE has said its workers, which 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's original proposal also included overtime at two times the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and ECEs, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

Walton said CUPE cut its wage proposal more than in half in a counter offer it gave the government Tuesday night and made "substantial" moves in other areas as well. The government said it would not negotiate unless CUPE cancelled the strike.

Several other unions, including the teachers' unions currently in bargaining with the government, have expressed solidarity with CUPE. That also includes the Labourers' International Union of North America — LiUNA — which endorsed Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives in the spring election.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union has said the 8,000 education workers it represents will be walking off the job Friday in solidarity with CUPE.

Many boards with staff represented by that union had previously said the CUPE strike would close its schools, although boards in Sudbury and Simcoe County said Thursday they would close schools Friday as a result of OPSEU's planned action.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as the federal justice and labour ministers, have criticized the Ontario government for pre-emptively including the notwithstanding clause in the education worker legislation, saying it shouldn't be used to suspend workers' rights.

The clause allows the legislature to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press