As the hours counted down on Thursday, it was clear that a job action on Friday by the education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) was inevitable despite the Government of Ontario’s attempt to stop it. Despite a lot of action around Queen’s Park Thursday, CUPE workers look to be hitting the picket lines on Friday no matter what happens in the legislature.
Around 2:30 on Thursday afternoon, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, who are bargaining on behalf of CUPE workers, said that mediation was over and that a strike on Friday was inevitable.
“Regardless of the attempts by your OSBCU Bargaining Committee to achieve a negotiated deal that respects the needs of workers, students and families, the Ford Conservative government would not make the necessary investments to achieve this deal,” read the OSBCU statement.
“It is clear that this government never intended to negotiate. The time and effort they have spent on Bill 28, which strips away education worker Charter rights, should have been spent on a deal that would have respected workers and ensured the services that students desperately need are secured.”
On Monday, the Ontario government introduced legislation to pre-emptively prevent CUPE’s education workers from striking this week by imposing a new contract on 55,000 librarians, education assistants and custodians on Ontario.
To make the contract stick, the Ontario government is looking to pass Bill 28 using the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution, which many labour unions, and not just education workers, are calling a violation of their rights. In an appearance in the Queen’s Park media studio on Thursday afternoon, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said that those weren’t the rights he was focused on.
“I’m very cognizant of the extraordinary difficulty the strikes and the pandemics of the past three have had on children here in Ontario. This is not a normal time in society,” Lecce said.
“This is a different time and I think more parents would accept the premise this is an unprecedented challenge in children, and they’re seeing the regression in their children’s social, emotional, physical and mental health. And on that basis, we feel strongly that we must do everything available to government to give a voice to children,” he added.
On Wednesday, Lecce called on CUPE to withdraw their planned job action and only the cancellation of the strike would prevent the government from passing the legislation.
“We have this sword hanging over our heads, trying to threaten and bully our members and I’m proud to say our members just aren’t having any of that,” said CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn in an interview on CTV News Wednesday.
A province-wide strike is being organized for Friday by CUPE members, who will picket in front of MPPs offices around Ontario. Here in Guelph, workers will marching outside Mike Schreiner’s office in two shifts, from 8 am to 12 pm and 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.
On Thursday morning, education workers represented by OPSEU announced that they will also be striking in solidarity with CUPE on Friday, calling Bill 28 a legislative attack on workers’ constitutional right to fair and free collective bargaining.
“Bill 28 isn’t just an attack on education workers’ collective bargaining rights, it is an attack on all workers’ rights,” OPSEU side in a press release. “And after hearing from hundreds of our education workers and their local leaders who want to support their CUPE colleagues, our response to this unprecedented legislative overstep is clear: OPSEU/SEFPO education workers will walk out in solidarity with their CUPE colleagues this Friday.”
The breakdown in trust between education workers and and government has even reached the level of Federal attention with Hamilton New Democrat Matthew Green pushing for an emergency debate in the House of Commons on the Ontario government’s actions. He also called for unanimous consent for MPs to reject any intervention aimed at restricting the collective rights of workers to freely negotiate while condemning the use of the notwithstanding clause.
“Workers rights are under attack by Premier Ford. His use of the notwithstanding clause is a chilling instrument for fundamental charter rights that Canadians have fought hard for,” Green said in a statement. “We can’t stand by and do nothing as Ford tramples on constitutional rights. That’s why I called for an emergency debate to find solutions to protect workers’ abilities to bargain for a fair deal.”
On Wednesday night, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau even called Ford to talk about the situation. “The Prime Minister emphasized the critical importance of standing up for Canadians’ rights and freedoms, including workers’ rights. He was clear that the preemptive use of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause is wrong and inappropriate, and should only ever be used in the most exceptional of circumstances,” the PM’s readout of the conversation said.
Guelph MPP and Green Party leader issued a statement on Thursday morning to say that he had sent a letter to Minister of Justice David Lametti asking the Federal government to look at the Ontario government’s repeated use of the notwithstanding clause.
“I have extreme concerns about the current government’s cavalier attitude towards the use of the notwithstanding clause. This is their third time threatening to invoke this clause,” Schreiner said in a letter to Lametti. “I urge you and your government to urgently take the actions available to you to challenge the Ontario government’s use of the notwithstanding clause in this situation.”
For the most part at Guelph and area schools, it will be business as usual on Friday. In an updated posted on their website, the Upper Grand District School Board said that their contingency plan will be implemented and their schools will stay open. It’s ditto for the Wellington Catholic Board where the custodians and maintenance staff in all their schools, with the exception of four, are represented by CUPE.
“As a provincially funded school board we are required to keep schools open until such point that we cannot reasonably operate due to concerns related to health and safety or operational conditions within our schools. We recognize and appreciate the important role that our custodians and maintenance staff have in keeping our school safe, clean, and healthy each day,” it reads on the board’s website.