Sometimes it seemed like the honking never stopped along Woolwich Street. On Friday afternoon, as over 100 people demonstrated in front of the constituency office of Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner, almost every other car that drove by honked to show support for the local striking members of the Canadian Union of Public Employee. The takeaway message from the union is that they’ve got the support of the people.
“I think Doug Ford doesn’t realize that he’s gone way too far in taking away people’s Charter rights,” said Schreiner outside his office. “All morning people have been driving by and honking their horns in support of these education workers, and to really stand up for all of our Charter rates.”
Bill Foster, the president of CUPE Local 256 representing workers in the Upper Grand District School Board, said the whole point with the province-wide protests was to send a message to Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce. Foster also pointed to other unions represented in front of Schreiner’s office including the OPSEU and the United Steelworkers.
“This is more about solidarity to oppose a bill that Ford and Lecce have imposed on us,” Foster said. “What they’ve done to us could happen to them, so they’re out to try and stop and make sure that it doesn’t happen.”
In Guelph and Wellington County, CUPE accounts for about 218 custodians and English as a Second Language teachers in the Upper Grand Board with another 83 in the Wellington Catholic Board. The stakes, Foster said, is a better standard of living for his members after more than a decade without significant increase in compensation.
“If you look at what happened over the last 10 years, we had the four-year wage freeze, we had Bill 115, Bill 124, and we had our collective agreement rolled over two years,” Foster said. “When I started in 2007, a caretaker made $19.62, now it’s 2022 and they’re making $21.78; they’ve got a $2 raise in 15 years. Minimum wage in 2007 was $8, and now it’s $15.50, so that’s gone up $7.50.”
Given the stakes, and given the seriousness of legislation, some labour leaders expressed their concern that the government who brought the legislation wasn’t taking it seriously.
“I had the opportunity to sit in the Legislature in the member’s gallery yesterday while [Bill 28] was going through third reading, and it was actually one of the most disgraceful things that I’ve ever seen happen in the House,” said Janice Folk-Dawson, the executive vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
“There was between maybe eight to 10 Conservatives who stayed in the room to hear the debate and see what was going on, and those that did stay, instead of actually listening, spent their time heckling, and making people feel very uncomfortable,” she added.
Schreiner was also in the Legislature as Bill 28 was being debated, and he said that the Ford government crossed the line when it was passed. “I’m calling on him to revoke the legislation, and I’m also calling on the Federal government to intervene in any way it can to protect people’s Charter rights because we don’t know who Doug Ford is going after next,” he said.
“The one thing that would put a stop to this is for Doug Ford to revoke Bill 28, and to actually bargain in good faith with the lowest paid education workers in this province,” Schreiner added.
“We’ll never be able to have a have a meaningful collective bargaining agreement with this bill in place because they’ve not only taken away the three years we were going for, it’s four years,” Foster said. “We don’t want to be here today, we want to be at work. We don’t want to see schools shut down, we want to see them open. This is what we live for, but we’re doing this to say to Ford and Lecce that enough’s enough, and you can’t strip workers of their rights.”
That’s fine for Friday, but what about Monday?
“I just hope that we can force them back to the table, rescind the bill, sit down and do a fair collective agreement. CUPE has came with a couple of counteroffers that they said wasn’t enough. Well, what do they want?” Foster said.
“CUPE and the union heads will meet on Sunday, and we’ll put in place our strategy for next week, which you can expect is escalating actions and a diversity of actions in a diversity of places,” Folk-Dawson said. “We’re quite clear though that our fight right now is with the government, it’s not with the schools or with the school boards. In fact, many school board trustees are out here with us.”
“I want to say to parents out there to stand in solidarity with the people who care for your kids. If Doug Ford was serious about keeping schools open, he would be at the table bargaining fair living wages,” Schreiner said.