Strike or political protest? Ontario takes education workers' union to labour board amid Friday walkout

CUPE members and supporters rallied outside of Queen's Park in Toronto on the first day of an indefinite strike that closed schools in boards across the province.  (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)
CUPE members and supporters rallied outside of Queen's Park in Toronto on the first day of an indefinite strike that closed schools in boards across the province. (Carlos Osorio/CBC - image credit)

Thousands of Ontario education workers hit picket lines Friday in the first day of an indefinite walkout that has closed schools across the province, after the government passed controversial legislation that imposed a contract and rendered any strike action illegal.

School board workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) were protesting at politicians' offices, including hundreds of members outside Queen's Park and the education minister's constituency office in Vaughan, Ont. Members of other unions — including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and Unifor — also joined the picketers.

On Thursday, the Progressive Conservative government enacted Bill 28, a law that imposed contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned them from striking. The law also uses the notwithstanding clause to protect against constitutional challenges — a legal mechanism that has only been used twice in Ontario's history, both times by the governments of Premier Doug Ford.

CUPE says the law is an attack on all workers' bargaining rights and is staging a walkout anyway, warning that it will last until the government repeals the bill.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the Ford government's legislation an "attack on one of the most basic rights available, that of collective bargaining."

Asked if the federal government is considering referring the use of the notwithstanding clause to the Supreme Court of Canada, Trudeau said it is looking at "all options."

Aaron Guppy, a caretaker at York Region District School Board, was picketing outside of Education Minister Stephen Lecce's office.

"If they take away our rights as a union, every other union is next. They are not going to stop with just us," he said.

"We are just here to basically show that we are not going to back down, we are not going to take this terrible deal. The people support us," Guppy said.

Maria Gallant, a school secretary, was at Queen's Park first thing this morning. She told CBC News that the strike may be illegal after the government passed Bill 28, but CUPE members were left with no choice but to take action.

"We need our voices to be heard and for the government to realize this is not acceptable … We are just asking to be paid what we deserve, nothing more."

Carlos Osorio/CBC
Carlos Osorio/CBC

Government appeals to labour board

Over the past week, CUPE has gone from announcing the job action as a protest to calling it a strike, but Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, insisted Friday's walkout was in fact a "political protest."

"We're not out in front of schools. We're out in front of MPPs' offices," Walton told reporters.

Whether that language will matter in the face of the province's newly passed legislation remains to be seen.

Bill 28 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.

Lecce has suggested the government would indeed pursue those penalties, while the union has said it would foot the bill for fines levied against workers, which could cost as much as $220 million per day.

As of Friday afternoon CUPE is not aware of any fines imposed on the members or union, Walton told CBC News Friday afternoon.

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

The government has taken CUPE to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, seeking to have the strike declared illegal and the actions by union leaders to encourage the job action declared unlawful. A hearing began late Friday afternoon and was set to continue into Saturday.

Lecce reiterated that the government "will use every tool available" to get students back in classrooms.

Chris Glover/CBC
Chris Glover/CBC

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, insisted workers "have the right to protest for their rights, to demand something better from "a government that is sitting on a $2.1-billion surplus, a government refusing to actually invest in our schools."

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

The Ministry of Education has urged school boards to "implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible" and otherwise "must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning."

Speaking to CBC News, Hahn stressed that CUPE would return to the bargaining "in a heartbeat" if the government repeals Bill 28 and said that none of the union members want to be on strike. He also appealed directly to parents who may be frustrated after two years of pandemic-related disruptions to learning.

"I would remind them that none of our people want to do this, that we were forced into a corner by a government that stripped us of our rights," Hahn said.

"I would remind them that it's not just about keeping kids in schools, because schools are just buildings. It's about the people in those schools."

WATCH | Striking Ontario education workers, supporters vow to fight for their rights:

Support from other labour unions

The strike action by CUPE has been met with vocal support from labour unions, including some outside of the field of education.

Some 8,000 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) also walked off the job today in a show of solidarity with education workers.

About 20,000 OSSTF members do jobs similar to those CUPE education workers currently on strike, and the union is involved in its own ongoing contract negotiations with the government with three days of bargaining scheduled for next week.

LISTEN | Construction union that endorsed Ford says it has 'buyer's remorse':

Meanwhile, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 793 — a private sector construction union — is publicly calling on the government to repeal Bill 28.

"We are very concerned about CUPE, but we're also worried about right across the country, the notwithstanding clause becoming a baseball bat to beat up workers," said Mike Gallagher, business manager for Local 793, also in an interview with Metro Morning.

IUOE endorsed Ford and his PCs ahead of the provincial election last June, the first time it had supported a right-of-centre party. Gallagher it was a choice based on Ford's support for the Highway 413 megaproject.

"I'm having buyer's remorse, I guess you could say. We supported him but he sure didn't have using the notwithstanding clause to attack workers' rights in his platform, as I recall," Gallagher said.

He also questioned the silence from Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who has spent a good deal of effort attempting to build inroads with labour unions, particularly in the skilled trades.

Both OSSTF and IUOE have said its members will back education workers in any possible, including financially, in the weeks ahead.

CUPE members lowest-paid education workers: union

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

WATCH | CUPE leadership heckles MPPs as they vote on Bill 28: