Striking education workers picket at MPP Byers’ office

Hundreds of striking education workers picketed outside Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Rick Byers’ office in Owen Sound on Nov. 4.

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers formed picket lines across the province on Nov. 4 after failed contract negotiations and the government’s heavy-handed use of a Charter of Rights bypass for back-to-work legislation.

Striking workers included: custodians, maintenance and library workers, secretaries, early childhood educators, educational assistants and IT professionals.

Chris Juniper, a custodian at a Port Elgin school and CUPE’s Grey Bruce Regional Lead, was leading workers on the picket lines in downtown Owen Sound.

“We’re out here fighting for our rights. We’ve been put on the back burner for the last 12 years. Enough is enough. We won’t be on the back burner anymore,” he said.

In addition to the job action in Owen Sound, Grey and Bruce CUPE members were also picketing outside of Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson’s office in Kincardine. Juniper said approximately 650 local workers were out on strike.

Juniper said the government’s back-to-work legislation will not deter their membership from continuing to fight for a new deal.

“We have no worries. The labour movement has fought for everything we’ve got and we’ll fight again,” he said.

Juniper said the union is fighting to protect short-term disability benefits for its membership.

“Things are not always as safe in the workplace as they’d like you to believe,” he said. “Our members face violence,” he said. “We’ve earned those sick days, they can’t just legislate them away.”

On Thursday, the province passed legislation (Bill 28) to use the notwithstanding clause to force CUPE members back to work by forcing through a four-year contract not agreed to by the union and making a strike illegal and all strikers subject to fines of up to $4,000 per day, plus fines up to $500,000 for the union.

The notwithstanding clause is a part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms a government can use to deviate from and/or override the sections in the Charter that set out fundamental freedoms, legal rights, and equality rights. It cannot apply to democratic, mobility, or language rights. Legislation passed under the notwithstanding clause can remain in effect for five years, and can be re-enacted.

This is the first time an Ontario government has used the notwithstanding clause for back-to-work legislation. The bill passed on Thursday blocks employees from striking, or negotiating wages any further, legally binding education workers to a four-year contract. The four-year contract now being imposed by the province says it will give a 2.5 per cent annual raise to workers making less than $43,000 a year, and a 1.5 per cent increase for all others.

CUPE has challenged this statement, saying the raises are based on hourly rates and pay scales, so the contract won’t actually give all workers with a salary under $43,000 the full 2.5 per cent.

CUPE originally asked for an 11.7 per cent increase for its workers making $39,000 or less (about $4,500 per year before taxes, or approximately $3 per hour). CUPE represents 55,000 education workers in Ontario and 715,000 across Canada. The current strike by CUPE members is indefinite.

“We’ll be here until we get a deal,” said Juniper, as cars streamed by honking their horns in support of the workers. “Ninety-five per cent of the public has been supportive.”

Bluewater School Board schools remained open on Nov. 4 during the strike. Byers was not available for a comment on the situation.

Chris Fell, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca