CUPE education workers have their say on the streets of Kingston

Striking CUPE education workers and their supporters lined the streets surrounding the block that is home to MPP Ted Hsu’s and MP Mark Gerretsen’s offices on Friday, Nov. 3, 2022, joining other rallies occurring across the province. Photo by Cris Vilela/Kingstonist.

As promised by those members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in the education sector, many area schools remained closed today as education workers went on strike.

The strike is occurring despite the fact that the provincial government passed legislation banning any potential job action by education workers. On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, the province enacted Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which imposed contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned them from striking. The government has since stated its intention to take the union to the Ontario Labour Relations Board over the walkout.

By 9 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, hundreds of CUPE workers and their supporters had already taken to the streets of downtown Kingston, where picketers planned to remain all day. Specifically, those picketing were marching around the city block bounded by Princess Street, Drayton Avenue, and Concession Street, which houses the offices of MPP Ted Hsu and MP Mark Gerretsen. By noon, at least 1,000 people had joined the rally.

Photo by Cris Vilela/Kingstonist.
Photo by Cris Vilela/Kingstonist.
Photo by Dylan Chenier/Kingstonist.

Nichola Harkness, an Educational Assistant (EA) and Strike Lead for CUPE Local 1480, spoke with Kingstonist, sharing her thoughts on the importance of the rally.

“Today is about a lot of things,” Harkness said. “It’s about supports for students. It’s about living wages for families. It’s about fighting for our rights, as Canadians, that have been legislated away by this government. All of these people believe in… what they’re fighting for. Our working conditions are those children’s learning conditions, and it needs to be addressed. It needs to be made better.”

Harkness commented on the over 1,000 people participating in the rally throughout the day, noting that members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) would be joining the CUPE members and their supporters.

“I think some nurses have come out; we’ve had other education sectors come out; we’ve had real estate people come out and walk with us,” she continued. “We’ve just had an outpouring of support.”

Regarding the unprecedented steps taken by the Ford government to legislate the CUPE education workers back to work, Harkness spoke candidly: “CUPE gave notice to bargain back in June. They’ve been there every day, ready and willing to negotiate a fair deal. The government has been very stiff in their position. And they’re just not recognizing that this isn’t about money.”

“This is about students’ support,” she went on. “We are the ones with our feet on the ground in those schools, and we know that it needs attention. We need more support; we need school safety; we need school cleanliness. There are children who are on waiting lists [for supports]. There are children who are losing out on support because there are not enough of us to go around. This legislation kind of says ‘NO’ to those things. And this is what we’re fighting for.”

Harkness said she doesn’t know how long the strike action will continue, but she has faith in the CUPE central bargaining team and knows they are still there, waiting and willing to negotiate.

“Negotiate being the key word there: a fair deal for everybody,” she said. “I just hope that, sooner rather than later, the government sees that and gets back to the table as well.”

In terms of education workers being more or less classified as “essential workers” through the government’s passing of Bill 28 and the invocation of the notwithstanding clause, Harkness pointed to the current school closures resulting from the strike, as well as experiences through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that the fact that the schools are closing goes to show just how essential we are,” she said. “We were there during the pandemic. We were in class with the most vulnerable learners who couldn’t access the online platform during school closures. So, you know, I think it’s a testament that schools work because key workers work.”

Harkness also shared the personal aspects of what makes the strike action so important, beyond her role as an EA.

“This isn’t easy for anybody,” she acknowledged. “This is not what we wanted. We want to be in school with our kids. I have a child who needs to be in school: she is dyslexic… But she’s not getting the support at school that she needs. I, as a mom, am super proud and just delighted that there are people out there willing to fight for her.”

MPP Ted Hsu speaks to those rallying outside his office on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, as CUPE education workers picketed in downtown Kingston with supporters. Photo by Phillip Stafford/Kingstonist.

Just after noon, MPP Hsu (who had earlier shared his views on the Conservative’s use of Bill 28 and the notwithstanding clause) climbed atop a proverbial soapbox (actualy a large plastic storage bin), where he addressed those outside his office.

“There are people here clear around the block,” Hsu said into a megaphone, drowned out only by the honking horns of passing supporters. “And this is happening all across the province!”

Hsu spoke in support of those rallying, and against the actions taken by the Ford government in enacting Bill 82 and the use of the notwithstanding clause, which has only been used twice in the history of Ontario, both times by the Ford government. Hsu implored Ontarians not to vote for Ford again, and to make sure that he knows their intentions.

“Make Doug Ford feel threatened, because he’s going to lose voters,” Hsu said. “He has overstepped. He’s gone too far!”

MP Gerretsen is currently in Ottawa and was unable to attend the rally, according to his office.

Photo by Phillip Stafford/Kingstonist.
Photo by Phillip Stafford/Kingstonist.
Photo by Phillip Stafford/Kingstonist.

With files from Cris Vilela and Phillip Stafford.

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