Ontario has now passed legislation making it illegal for 55,000 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees to strike and imposing a contract on them.
The workers are expected to walk off the job Friday after mediation between the Ontario government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) failed to reach a deal. There's no word on when the job action will end. School boards are advising parents to make alternative child-care plans into next week.
Union leaders said education workers will be off the job "until our members decide otherwise."
"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.
Government had 'no choice,' Lecce says
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government had no choice but to proceed with its legislation, which includes the notwithstanding clause that allows the legislature to override parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.
"For the sake of Ontario's two million students, to keep classrooms open, CUPE has left us with no choice but to pass the Keeping Kids in Class Act," he said.
"It is my hope and expectation that they will show up tomorrow for our kids," said Lecce, saying the union would not rescind its intent to strike when the two parties went back to the bargaining table.
WATCH | CUPE members protest during final vote on the bill:
Lecce said he has directed school boards to do "everything possible" to keep as many schools open for as many students as possible, and has asked staff to be at work to provide "live learning" in the case of a strike.
Legislation will make strike action illegal
Bill 28 will make strike action illegal, though the CUPE has said workers will walk off the job Friday regardless. Early childhood educators, educational assistants and custodians are among those taking part in the strike.
"What is going in place today is a piece of legislation, it's not a deal. A deal is something that two parties come to collectively and agree to. What this is, is a bullying tactic," Walton said at a news conference Thursday.
When asked if Lecce understood the impact of using the notwithstanding clause to preemptively stop a strike, the education minister said he's "cognizant" of the level of disruption children have faced in the last few years.
"This is not a normal time in society," said Lecce.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said today that its 8,000 education workers will also be off the job Friday in solidarity with their CUPE counterparts. Its largest contingent of members are in the Peel and York district school boards, which have both already said the strike would close schools.
The Toronto District School Board, the province's largest, says it will keep schools closed for the duration of the strike because it can't ensure student safety. Many other boards across the province also plan to close schools or move to remote learning for Friday.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), who are both in negotiations with the government, said they had no similar solidarity walkout plans but were encouraging members to join CUPE picket lines before and after work.
ETFO's president said the union was lobbying legislators and contacting parents and community groups to rally support for CUPE.
"This is such a flagrant attack on democracy and our democratic rights at this particular time," said Karen Brown.
"We are working... to examine what are some options, what is available, and how we can continue to support [education workers] and put pressure on this government."
Education workers deserve 'living wage,' parent says
A group called the Ontario Parent Action Network held an emergency rally outside of the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel Thursday to show support for education workers.
"I'm very concerned about the use of the notwithstanding clause of the charter and the impact that could have on Canadians ... this is worth fighting back," said Megan McCrossan, a parent attending the rally.
"I think education workers deserve a living wage," said McCrossan, whose son's school in Toronto will be closed Friday.
Meanwhile, barriers were put in place outside of Queen's Park Thursday afternoon ahead of the scheduled strike. Walton said the union intends to picket in front of MPP offices on Friday.
OPSEU president JP Hornick said the legislation tabled by the government is undemocratic.
"Bill 28 isn't just an attack on education workers' collective bargaining rights, it is an attack on all workers' rights," Hornick said in a statement.
That sentiment was echoed by representatives from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), who held an emergency news conference at Queen's Park this morning.
"By imposing a contract, banning strikes and eliminating meaningful oversight, the government is violating workers' Charter right to freedom of association. This is both unconscionable and completely unnecessary," said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director and general counsel for the organization.
Ministry to pursue fines if strike goes ahead: Lecce
Premier Doug Ford, who was not present during the final vote on Bill 28, said Thursday that the union left him with "no choice" but to introduce Bill 28. He said students have already suffered through two years of pandemic disruptions, and the government will use every tool at its disposal to ensure kids stay in class full-time.
The province's legislation includes steep fines if workers do not comply. A spokesperson for Lecce said the ministry intends to pursue the fines if the strike goes ahead.
Walton has said the union would foot the bill for penalties levied against workers, and has suggested that CUPE is looking for outside financial help from other labour groups.
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 says 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.
The union has said its workers, which make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and have been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent.