Education workers committed to Friday strike, despite government bill

Many classrooms across Ontario will likely be empty this Friday, as education workers are set to defy provincial legislation and walk off the job. Photo by Ivan Aleksic.

Education workers across Ontario are set to hit the picket lines this Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, in what the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has called a “province-wide political protest.” The move comes despite the fact that the provincial government is likely to pass legislation this week that would ban any potential job action by education workers. 

“On Friday, regardless of what this government does, we will be engaging in a province-wide political protest where no CUPE education worker will be on the job until we get a real deal. Our members will not have their rights legislated away,” said CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn in a statement released earlier this week. “Now’s the time to stand up for ourselves and public education and that’s just what we’re going to do.”

The walkout means that many Kingston-area schools will be closed this Friday, as the Union’s 55,000 education workers get set to walk off the job. Instead, the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) and the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB) will pivot to remote learning if a strike occurs.

In an interview with Kingstonist on Tuesday, CUPE Local 1480 President Erin Provost, whose union represents non-teaching employees within the LDSB, said that, while workers remain focused on reaching an agreement with the province, the Union will proceed with a strike on Friday: “We’re still here trying to work out a deal before Friday… Our members are still angry enough that they have said they are willing to walk out on Friday, regardless of whether the legislation has been passed or not.”

On Monday, the Ontario government tabled Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which, if passed, would invoke the notwithstanding clause to impose a mandatory contract on provincial education workers. The notwithstanding clause — officially known as Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — gives legislatures the ability to pass legislation that may be deemed unconstitutional. Premier Ford’s use of the power has drawn sharp criticism from labour representatives. 

“The government forcing this legislation on us is trampling our democratic right to collective bargaining. If they’re willing to trample on our rights and use the notwithstanding clause for bargaining, what else are they willing to trample on the rights of?” questioned Provost. 

As of right now, education workers across the province are set to walk off the job on Friday, despite the prospect of the government’s bill. However, when asked whether additional job action will be taken beyond Friday’s walkout, Provost was uncertain: “Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for that. We’re kind of going one day at a time. We’re hopeful that a deal can be reached. We’re committed to being at the table every day. We’re committed to being here over the weekend if that’s what it takes.” 

Provost went on, “We’re hoping that something can be done and that the government will realize that this legislation is unjust and uncalled for, and that we need to get back to the table and bargain the collective agreement without it being imposed upon us.”

Contract talks between workers and the government have been at a stalemate for months, as staff such as maintenance workers, educational assistants, custodians, and early childhood educators push for annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent. “The majority of us work 10 months a year and have to go on EI in the summer,” Provost stated. “And a lot of our workers have to rely on social programs like food banks and clothing drives to be able to support their families, because our wages have been kept so low for many years.”

Meanwhile, the government had been offering raises of just 2 per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 annually, while all other workers would have received a 1.25 per cent increase per year. Under Bill 28, however, any employees making less than $43,000 annually would receive a 2.5 per cent increase each year for four years, while all others would receive a 1.5 per cent annual raise. 

Debate on the bill continues Wednesday in the Ontario Provincial Legislature.

This is a developing story. Kingstonist will provide further coverage as additional information becomes available.

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