TORONTO — A union representing approximately 55,000 Ontario education workers said Monday its members will walk off the job on Friday despite the government tabling legislation to impose contracts and ban a strike.
Laura Walton, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employee's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said whether workers continue to protest after Friday "will be left up to what happens."
"I am so proud because our members have said, 'Enough is enough,'" Walton said.
The Ontario government introduced legislation Monday to impose a contract on CUPE's education workers -- including librarians, custodians and early childhood educators -- and avert a strike that was set to start Friday.
CUPE has said it will explore every avenue to fight the bill, but the government said it intends to use the notwithstanding clause to keep the eventual law in force despite any constitutional challenges. The clause allows the legislature to override portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.
"We want to make sure that there's no issues, litigation or otherwise, that could essentially get these kids back out of class because of strikes locally or provincially," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said.
"This proposal, this legislation, provides absolute stability for kids to the extent we can control it and ensures they remain in a classroom, that nothing, nothing at all now or in the future could prevent a child's right to be in a classroom learning."
The government had been offering raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others.
Lecce said the new, four-year deal would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.
CUPE has said its workers, which make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and it has been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent.
CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said workerswere in a legal strike position as of this Thursday and they will take a stand for public education.
"If that bill passes before Friday it doesn’t matter. If they say it’s illegal to strike then we will be on a political protest," he said.
Hahn said education workers were subject, a decade ago, to an imposed wage freeze and back-to-work legislation from the then-Liberal government, and more recently legislation by the Ford government that capped public sector employees' wage increases at one per cent a year.
"We may in fact, challenge this in court, but we are first going to challenge it in our communities. We are not going to allow our rights to be legislated away. We are not going to simply stand by and accept this attempt by the government to bully our members," he said.
The Toronto District School Board said in an update late Monday that it will have no option but to close all of its schools Friday.
"Student supervision and safety are our top priorities and without the important services of these school-based employees, we cannot guarantee that our learning environments will remain safe and clean for all students," the board said in its statement.
But the Halton District School Board responded differently. It told parents Monday the government's legislation meant its earlier plan to keep elementary schools open through a mix of in-person and remote learning was "no longer required" and that its schools would remain open.
Lecce said it was "regretful" to hear that CUPE plans to walk out despite the legislation.
"It is certainly our intention that kids will be in school, we will pass a law, and obviously, I think there's not a parent in this province who would be supportive of children staying home for even one day of the strike," he said.
The legislation sets out fines for violating a prohibition on strikes for the life of the agreement of up to $4,000 per employee per day, while there are fines of up to $500,000 for the union.
Walton said the union would foot the bill for any such fines.
David Doorey, a York University professor specializing in labour and employment law, said there has been only one other Canadian use of the notwithstanding clause in back-to-work legislation — in Saskatchewan in the 1980s — but the law has changed dramatically since then.
"Today, the Charter protects a right to collective bargaining and to strike," he said.
"As a result, the Ontario government requires the notwithstanding clause to protect itself from a lawsuit...Almost certainly, the new Keeping Students in Class Act would violate the Charter rights of the educational workers."
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the notwithstanding clause was never meant to be used in contract negotiations.
"This misuse, and the flagrant disregard for individual rights is wrong and it is dangerous to our constitutional democracy," she said in a statement.
The four major teachers' unions are also in the midst of contract negotiations with the government and the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said Monday that it walked away from the table for the day in support of CUPE.
"We unequivocally condemn the Ford government’s imposition of a concessionary contract on some of the lowest-paid education professionals working in Ontario’s schools," ETFO president Karen Brown wrote in a statement.
The average CUPE employee makes $26.69 an hour. There are vast differences in workers' salaries, even in the same job classification, due to the number of hours worked in a week — some employees work 40, others work 35, while some work less than that — differences in boards, as well as some employees getting paid for 12 months a year while others are laid off for the summers.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation said it stands in solidarity with CUPE members against the "undermining" of their collective bargaining rights. The union said its focus remained on making progress at the bargaining table in its own negotiations.
Government House Leader Paul Calandra said the legislature would be in session Tuesday at 5 a.m. in order to speed up passage of the legislation.
CUPE and the government had made little progress at the bargaining table over the past few months other than agreeing to standardizing bereavement leave. They were far apart on wages, with CUPE saying an additional $3.25 an hour would help the lowest-paid education workers catch up after years of wage freezes and restraint, as well as high inflation.
Lecce had framed their proposals as a 50-per-cent increase in compensation, which added together the wage requests, overtime pay, preparation time, an extra week of work, and professional development.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press