'There were no other options left:' Inside Ontario's bid to end the education walkout

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford was staring down a gathering storm of indefinite school closures, a new law nobody obeyed and warnings of widespread, economy-disrupting work stoppages when he decided last weekend that there was only one way out.

On Sunday afternoon, Ford, his top advisers and his education minister got on the phone and hashed out their plan – in an escalating labour dispute with education workers, the government had to back down first.

"There were no other options left," a senior government source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process publicly.

At the time of the call, tensions between the government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees' education workers had reached a fever pitch.

The government passed legislation Thursday that imposed a contract on the workers and banned them from striking. The law included the controversial notwithstanding clause– which allows a government to override Charter rights for a five-year period – to guard against constitutional challenges.

But the workers, including education assistants, librarians and custodians, walked off the job anyway on Friday and planned to stay away indefinitely, prompting hundreds of schools to close to in-person learning.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board was weighing whether to declare the walkout illegal, which the government viewed as the first step toward hitting the union with steep fines for continued labour action. And with large donations coming in to CUPE, the threat of fines didn't seem to be the deterrent the government had hoped.

Meanwhile, unions across the country were threatening job action in support of CUPE — including in Ford's beloved and critical auto sector, according to union officials involved in the planning.

The Canadian Press spoke to several people close to the negotiations, including senior government and union officials, whose interviews provide a glimpse into a frenzied nine-day battle that ultimately ended with both sides convinced to holster their strongest weapons.

On Monday, Ford held a press conference to announce a "massiveolive branch."

"Our government is willing to rescind the legislation ... but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike,'' he said.

The union agreed to have workers return to their jobs, kids were back in class the next day, and bargaining resumed.

Sources have revealed, however, that the government didn't think the situation would escalate as it did.

Negotiations with CUPE were rocky from the start. In the summer, both sides disagreed even about the timing to begin bargaining.

After months of tense bargaining, the union announced on Oct. 30, that members would go on strike in five days if a deal wasn't reached. The government presented a new offer, but also said if CUPE didn't cancel strike plans, legislation would be tabled to impose contracts.

The bill included a pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause. The government believed that would ensure workers wouldn't strike, at least not for more than perhaps a day, sources said.

"We didn't really think that they'll just say, 'We'll strike illegally',” one of the government sources said. "We just didn't take that into account."

The use of the notwithstanding clause would prove to be a key miscalculation.

With the government already debating the bill, CUPE tabled a counter-offer late Tuesday, but the government said it wouldn't negotiate unless the strike planned for Friday was cancelled.

Yet the strike inched closer, the legislation kept progressing and unions across the country began talking about how to stop the bill.

On Thursday, the government made one more offer, minutes before it was set to enact the law.

Ford rushed into a room across from his office at the legislature with Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton. Staffers came and went in a flurry.

Fifteen minutes later, a grim-faced Ford emerged.

"We're working on it," he told reporters as he strode back into his office.

Behind the scenes, Ford and his top lieutenants had decided to stall the bill as they waited to hear back from CUPE.

"I thought we had a deal," Ford said at a news conference this week. "All of a sudden they came back to my office and said, 'There's no deal.' I was floored."

But Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said she couldn't fully considerThursday's last-ditch offer because it was never formally made.

"We were told that there was a possible deal," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "It never materialized in writing. At that time, the mediator said, 'We're done now'."

The mediator called off talks because the two sides were too far apart.

Lecce then held a news conference Thursday to announce there was no deal and the legislation would pass.

CUPE education workers and supporters hit picket lines Friday, largely outside politicians' offices. Hundreds of thousands of children had to stay home, despite the government pledge to "keep kids in class."

Meanwhile, the government took CUPE to the labour relations board in a bid to get the strike declared illegal in a hearing that stretched through the wee hours over the weekend. But even if the board ruled in the province's favour – a decision hasn't been issued and the point is moot with both sides back at the table – the government didn't have the power to directly enforce steep fines.

"They're now acting unlawfully, but we aren't in charge of enforcement," one government source said of the tenuous situation the province would still be in. "So what do we have left to do?"

Another source said union leaders could have been found in contempt of court, but nothing like that would happen quickly and having kids out of classfor weeks was not a palatable option.

Meanwhile, labour leaders – some friendly to Ford's government, others less so – began whispering pleas and warnings in his ear.

Unions across the country – even trades and construction unions that had backed Ford in the spring election – were taken aback by the legislation's inclusion of the notwithstanding clause, which they called an attack on Charter rights.

By week's end, union leaders gathered in Toronto with two goals in mind: get Ford on the line in an effort to cool temperatures, and plan a massive work stoppage that would hit many sectors if he didn't back down.

Public-sector unions had been on the phone with the premier's office throughout Friday and the weekend. Private-sector union leaders, including the Laborers International Union of North Americaand other trade unions otherwise supportive of Ford, were speaking directly with the premier and the labour minister, sources said.

The pro-Ford unions were urging the premier to give both sides a way out of an indefinite strike by promising to repeal the law so long as CUPE ended its walkout. Other unions, such as Unifor, were pushing a similar message, but with a caveat that government inaction would result in "mass resistance."

"There is a mood out there among workers, ready to stand up for their rights,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said she told Ford's office. "And this legislation was like throwing gasoline on a fire."

Unifor’s 300,000 members were ready to escalate job action, Payne said. They planned to hit every sector, including with their 40,000 autoworkers in Ontario.

On Monday, Payne stood on a packed stage at a CUPE news conference with union leaders representing teachers, steelworkers, food manufacturers, building tradespeople, transit workers, movie and TV production workers, federal public servants, nurses, personal support workers, postal workers and energy-sector professionals.

They had been set to unveil mass resistance plans.

CUPE national president Mark Hancock said plans included a mass rally at the legislature onNov. 12 and "significant job action across the province and even across the country" starting Monday, Nov. 14.

Ford's promise to repeal the legislation meant those plans were set aside, but Hancock said the pushback was about more thanOntario education workers.

"They all expressed their concern about the premier bringing in this nuclear bomb," he said in an interview, referring to the notwithstanding clause.

"If Premier Ford and the Conservatives got away with it here, then it may be coming to a province near them in the near future."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2022.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press