Ontario Government Pre-empts Education Strike, Labour Pissed

A spooky surprise this Halloween for education workers in Ontario, especially the ones getting ready to strike this Friday. In a pre-emptive move before the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ deadline for job action this Friday, the Minister of Education has announced Monday that the Ontario government will be forcing the province’s librarians, educations and custodians back to work before they even have a chance to strike.

“We are disappointed that CUPE is refusing to compromise on their demand for a nearly 50 per cent increase in compensation, representing a price tag close to $19-billion if extended across the sector,” said Stephen Lecce in a statement Monday.

“CUPE has now made the decision to strike, putting their own self interest ahead of Ontario’s nearly two million children, who deserve to stay in class learning,” he added. “We are delivering on our promise to parents that our government will do whatever it takes to keep students in class, so they can catch up and get back to the basics of learning.”

So Lecce today introduced the Keeping Students in Class Act, a new “good-faith attempt” by the government to secure a deal with CUPE despite that union’s apparently bad-faith efforts which will “create destabilizing uncertainty for students and families.”

The Act will essentially impose a new four-year agreement on CUPE under the guise of generosity. Ontario’s 55,000 education workers will get a 2.5 per cent salary increase as opposed to the initial offer of 2 per cent, with an increase in benefits contributions resulting in a $6,120 annual employer contribution per employee by August 31, 2026.

There will also be $4.5 million for apprenticeship training, an extension of modified job security provisions, and modifications to sick leave and short-term disability leave plans.

Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, was incredulous in his response saying that the government is being misleading when they talk about being forced into a corner by the union. He also called the “final offer” from the government not as generous as the Minister would like people to think it is.

“A half percent wage increase to an already-insulting offer isn’t generous. An additional 200 bucks in the pockets of workers earning 39K isn’t generous. It wouldn’t even be generous to accept our proposal – it would be necessary, reasonable, and affordable. It’s simply what’s needed in our schools,” Hahn said.

The main English teachers unions – the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) – all stood in solidarity with their CUPE friends and co-workers calling on the Ford government to negotiate in good faith and work towards a mutually beneficial for all sides.

“Today, the Ford government has signalled it is uninterested in reaching collective agreements that are negotiated freely and fairly. And its oppressive use of the notwithstanding clause is another flagrant abuse of power—one that continues to attack democracy by trampling on Ontarians’ constitutional rights,” said ETFO president Karen Brown in a statement adding that today her union was set to begin negotiations.

“On this of all days, ETFO could not, in good conscience, sit across the table from the government, and so we ended negotiations for the day,” Brown added.

Even non-education unions released statements in solidarity with CUPE.

“This is a dark day for workers’ rights in Canada. Workers must have a say in our own working conditions. Without the right to strike, we are all subject to the whim of the boss, or in this case, of Minister Lecce, to set our working conditions,” said Naureen Rizvi, Unifor Ontario regional director. “Unifor members across Ontario are preparing to stand with CUPE workers as they demand that Lecce negotiate instead of legislating.”

With the Progressive Conservative majority in the Legislature, the Keeping Students in Class Act should be passed quickly and smoothly by Friday, but for CUPE that’s not the end of the story.

“We have three more days of bargaining left despite the tabling of this legislation and imposing this totally inadequate contract,” Hahn said. “Lecce and Ford might think they can just rely on this bully tactic of a legislation. But we’ve been in mass meetings the last week with education workers – frontline workers who’ve resoundingly expressed their commitment to ensuring good wages, work conditions, and educational environments.

“On Friday, regardless of what this government does, we will be engaging in province-wide political protest where no CUPE education worker will be on the job until we get a real deal,” Hahn added.

Political leaders at Queen’s Park joined the pile on with Guelph MPP and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner saying that it’s the students that will pay the price for government overreach in these union negotiations.

“Ford clearly understands that he is violating the constitutional rights of the lowest paid education workers by invoking the notwithstanding clause. These are the same education workers who sacrificed so much during the pandemic, who ensure our kids get to school safely and have clean and safe classrooms to learn in,” Schreiner said in a statement,

“Yes, students should be in school learning, but taking a sledgehammer to the rights of education workers is not going to achieve that. The bullying and intimidation of education workers and unions has to stop because caring for the workers who care for our kids directly affects the quality of their education,” Schreiner added.

“Instead of giving education workers a decent wage, and ensuring caring adults are there for our kids in the classroom, Ford and Lecce are launching a losing battle. When the Liberals meddled with the bargaining rights of educators and teachers, the courts ordered the government to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars,” added Chandra Pasma, Ontario NDP Education critic.

Ford should respect workers’ rights, rip up his anti-worker legislation, and return to the bargaining table with a fair deal that retains education workers, rather than driving them away,” Pasma said.

A statement from the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, which represents Ontario’s Catholic school boards, went another way with today’s labour drama by saying that they will stay the course and continue to look for a mutually beneficial agreement with their teachers.

“The Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association’s preference is for an agreement reached through the collective bargaining process that is fair to students, staff, Catholic ratepayers and the 29 Catholic school boards we represent,” said OCSTA president Patrick Daly. “We recognize the need to mitigate any further disruption to student learning and remain prepared to continue negotiations with our Trustee Association, CUPE and Crown partners. We will study the legislation and remain prepared to continue negotiating.”

To be continued…

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