The Ford government has tabled legislation that will impose a contract on education support workers, but the union says the workers will strike anyway.
The province announced Monday that it will pass what it calls the Keeping Students In Class Act, which would prevent a walkout by 55,000 support workers this Friday. The workers, including custodians, librarians, educational assistants, and administrative staff, are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
The legislation will prevent Ontario education workers from going on strike. It also imposes a four-year contract on workers, using the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to override its Charter of Rights. The notwithstanding clause allows the legislature to override some portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year term.
At a news conference at Queen's Park on Monday afternoon, CUPE leadership said the workers will walk off the job on Friday in protest of the government's imposition of a new contract. It's not known if the protest will continue the following week.
"I don't have a crystal ball," said Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Boards Council of Unions. "There needs to be a clear move by this government not to legislate, but to work with families, to work with students, and to work with education workers. And they are ready to fight for as long as it takes for that to happen."
CUPE President Fred Hahn said education workers will not respond to he called the government's "bullying tactics."
"On Friday, regardless of what this government does, we will be engaging in province-wide political protest where no CUPE education worker will be on the job until we get a real deal," said Hahn. "Our members will not have their rights legislated away. Now's the time to stand up for ourselves and public education and that’s just what we're going to do."
Following remarks from CUPE and Ontario Federation of Labour reps, Education Minister Stephen Lecce came out and said he believes the legislation is constitutional and the Doug Ford government is "acting decisively" to prevent a strike.
"We gave [CUPE] an option yesterday, to work with us, to take away the five-day strike notice, so there's no strike on Friday," Lecce said. "We enhanced our offer and they still refused. So here we are today in a position where we must act to provide stability for children, and that is the right thing to do."
Lecce emphasized that the legislation will provide stability to students and their families to ensure nothing "prevents their rights" to be in a classroom learning. He added that the actions come with some regret, stating the government would have preferred to get a voluntary deal. Lecce told reporters the government will pass the bill and move forward with the legislation.
Also on Monday, The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) called off talks with the government in solidarity with CUPE. The province's Official Opposition also called the Ford government bullies, and said students will ultimately pay the price if education workers are driven off.
"It's despicable that Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce are putting the support our kids get in school at risk," said NDP education critic Chandra Pasma. "Instead of giving education workers a decent wage, and ensuring caring adults are there for our kids in the classroom, Ford and Lecce are launching a losing battle. When the Liberals meddled with the bargaining rights of educators and teachers, the courts ordered the government to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars," said Pasma. "Mr. Ford should respect workers' rights, rip up his anti-worker legislation, and return to the bargaining table with a fair deal that retains education workers, rather than driving them away."
The legislation states education workers could face fines up to $4,000 per day if they strike, plus a $500,000 daily fine for the union. CUPE said it will cover workers' fines, which could amount to $220-million per day.
"I'm appealing on a moral basis to the workers, who I know love these kids, that they will do the right thing. Show up, make a difference and continue to enrich the lives of a child, but we obviously have no tolerance to a disruption or a strike of any type," Lecce said.
The Ontario government has offered most workers a 1.25 per cent salary increase except for those making less than $40,000 a year, offering that group a two per cent raise. CUPE has been asking for a raise of about $3.25 per hour.
According to a statement from Education Minister Stephen Lecce, the four year contract that will be imposed on the education workers will include pay raises of 2.5 per cent for workers making less than $43,000 per year and 1.25 per cent for all others in each year of the contract.
- With files from Ruby Sweeney