Monday dawned with another day of job action by education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), but now it will be the last day too. In a sudden press conference at Queen’s Park this morning, Premier Doug Ford said that his government will move to revoke the highly controversial Bill 28 that imposed a new contract on CUPE using the notwithstanding clause if the school workers promise to return to work.
“I’ve always respected the right of workers to fair and free bargaining, but CUPE refused to take strike action off the table, even when those strikes were illegal,” Ford said. “I want to be clear: We didn’t make the decision to introduce legislation lightly, we were left with no choice. Our desire has always been, and remains, to negotiate in good faith to land agreements with education union partners.”
“As a gesture of good faith, our government is willing to rescind the legislation and we’re willing to resend section 33, but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike and letting our kids back into their classrooms,” Ford added while Education Minister Stephen Lecce stood nearby without ever saying anything.
Over the weekend, demonstrations against the Ontario government’s use of the back-to-work legislation before a strike had even begun, and using the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to enforce it, continued outside MPP’s constituency offices and included one major demonstration in downtown Toronto.
Lawyers for CUPE and the government spent the weekend in an emergency hearing of the Ontario Labour Relations Board for a determination about the legality of the strike. No decision has yet been rendered by the board.
A few hours after Ford’s presser, and about 45 minutes after they were scheduled to start, Mark Hancock, national president of CUPE, took the stage with over a dozen other labour leaders for an “unprecedented gathering” to present the union’s reply to Ford’s proposition.
“We’ve demonstrated the power of public sector and private sector solidarity, and we’ve shown that when our rights are under attack, our movement is strong, and that we will stand up for each other,” Hancock said.
Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said that the delay in the press conference was because the labour leaders wanted to see in writing Ford’s promise to repeal Bill 28 if CUPE calls off their job action.
“We listened to the Premier’s announcement today, and like many of you, we were very confused,” Walton said. “The delay – and I want to thank you all for your patience – was to receive in writing the Premier’s intent. We are no longer in a world where we can go without having things in writing. We have received and can confirm that the Premier will introduce and support legislation that will repeal Bill 28 in its entirety.”
Walton also said that CUPE’s job action will come to an end on Tuesday in their own show of good faith. “We hope that this gesture is met with the same good faith by this government in a new proposal at the bargaining table as soon as possible. I will be clear, we’re here waiting right now and time is ticking.”
Although Monday’s announcements represented a detente for both the government and the union, Walton said that her workers are still in a legal strike position, and would like to see more good faith in the form a new round of bargaining, and she would like to see that sooner rather than later.
“In accordance to the School Board Collective Bargaining Act, we are still in a legal strike position, we would have to serve a five day notice, which is what’s required of us, so we don’t have to reset the clocks, but we’re going into this with our eyes on getting a real deal,” Walton said. “Our commitment to the people of Ontario, to the parents to the kids, is we’re going back to the table with open minds, open hearts, and we’re ready to negotiate. We call on the government to do the exact same thing.”
A few hours earlier at Queen’s Park, Ford made no promises.
“We’re willing to make a fair deal, one that offers more help for lower income workers. We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents, and fair for taxpayers, and we know we can get there,” Ford said.
“But as stewards of taxpayers dollars, we also have a responsibility to the entire province, and a deal with CUPE has massive impacts on broader public service salaries, as well as the government’s ability to invest in services like healthcare, transit, education and hospital infrastructure,” Ford explained. “These are complex discussions, especially given the economic climate we’re in with record high inflation, economic uncertainty, and cost of living challenges that every family is facing. Right now, when it comes to the provincial finances, we need to be cautious and responsible, and we will.”
At the media availability after the announcement, Ford was repeatedly asked if he misstepped by bring Bill 28 forward, and maybe went too far. He disagreed with that assessment of the situation. “This was nothing we did, this was on CUPE. And if you’ve ever been out in negotiating table, there’s one thing you don’t do as you’re negotiating and that is get up and walk out,” Ford said. He also refused to say if he would ever again use the notwithstanding clause to force government workers back to the job in the future.
“Let’s be clear, Premier Ford grossly overreached, and those 55,000 courageous workers who stood up and said, ‘No way, not today,’ was matched by the thousands of workers across this country who came together and said, ‘Hell no, this is not going to happen today,'” said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. “We appreciate that now is the time to get back to that bargaining table, but let there be no mistake: Canada’s unions are ready to come back and rally once again and do whatever it takes to get this done.”
For now though, everything should be back to normal in Ontario’s schools by midweek.
“I’m assuming that the school boards will be coming together, and they will be making announcements, but my understanding is our members will be at work tomorrow,” Walton said.