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55,000 Ontario Education Workers Strike Despite Draconian New Anti-Labor Law

Workers are defying right-wing Premier Doug Ford’s new law making it illegal for education workers to go on strike.

Teachers and education workers from the four major education unions walk a picket line around Queens Park Circle in Toronto during a previous strike, February 21, 2020.

Defying new legislation fast-tracked by right-wing Ontario Premier Doug Ford outlawing strikes, more than 55,000 education workers in the Canadian province hit the picket lines Friday, vowing to stay in the streets for “as long as it takes” to secure a contract they feel is fair.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) launched what it called “a wake-up call and a call to arms for organized labor across Canada” after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government on Thursday enacted Bill 28 — the Keeping Students in Class Act — which imposes contracts on CUPE members and prohibits them from striking on pain of a $3,000(USD) daily fine per employee and up to a $371,000(USD) penalty for the union.

The new law also utilizes the notwithstanding clause to shield against constitutional challenges. The controversial legal mechanism has only been invoked twice in Ontario’s history — both times under Ford.

Liberal Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Bill 28 an “attack on one of the most basic rights available, that of collective bargaining.”

CUPE national president Mark Hancock said in a statement that “this isn’t just about education workers, this is about the rights of all working people across the country.”

“The message from our leaders here in Ontario is clear,”Hancock added. “Our members are united, and they intend to fight — and they have Canada’s largest union in their corner and we are going to fight alongside them.”

CUPE national secretary-treasurer Candace Rennick said that “now is a moment for us to ask ourselves what kind of union we want to be, in the face of the worst piece of legislation we’ve ever seen leveled at the labor movement.”

“Our members have spoken,” she added. “They are prepared to fight. They aren’t part of the largest union in the country for nothing. We are going to have their backs, and we’ll stand with them for as long as it takes.”

According to the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL):

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines Canadians’ right to a free and fair collective bargaining process, and the Supreme Court of Canada has found that the right to exercise economic sanctions (i.e., the right to strike) forms an integral part of that process. In addition to violating workers’ constitutional right to strike, the Keeping Students in Class Act enforces a concessionary contract on Ontario’s 55,000 education workers—the lowest paid workers in the education system—many of whom are women workers and workers of color.

The bill unilaterally imposes woefully low wage increases—well below inflation—on low-income employees who have previously been subjected to three years of 1% increases… inadequate protections against job cuts; no paid prep time for education workers who work directly with students; a cut to the sick leave/short-term disability plan; and many other imposed terms which penalize employees. All told the imposed compensation changes amount to a mere $200 in the pockets of workers earning on average $39,000 and facing 7% inflation.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said that by enacting a law that forces a contract on CUPE members, the Ford administration has chosen the “most draconian manner of legislating away two fundamental rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: the right to bargain collectively, and the right to strike.”

“The Ford government has signaled it is uninterested in reaching collective agreements that are negotiated freely and fairly,” she added. “And its oppressive use of the notwithstanding clause is another flagrant abuse of power — one that continues to attack democracy by trampling on Ontarians’ constitutional rights.”

Thousands of demonstrators turned out in Toronto’s Queen’s Park on Friday to denounce the Ford administration and show solidarity with the striking workers.

“We need our voices to be heard and for the government to realize this is not acceptable,” Maria Gallant, a school secretary, told CBC News. “We are just asking to be paid what we deserve, nothing more.”

Protesters also rallied outside the office of Education Minister Stephen Lecce in Vaughan.

“You cannot rip away the rights of workers and expect… that we are just going to take it sitting down,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, told Global News.

Others expressed support for the strike on social media.

Birgit Uwaila Umaigba, an intensive care unit and emergency room nurse who is also clinical course director at Centennial College in Toronto, dropped by a picket line to “protect our democracy.”

“Doug Ford and his retrogressive conservative government crossed the line by enacting Bill 28 and banning 55,000 CUPE members from exercising their fundamental right to strike,” she tweeted.

OFL announced a “Solidarity Saturday” day of action in the province, calling Bill 28 “a full-frontal attack on basic labor freedoms in Ontario.”

“Today is a dark day for Ontario workers. By introducing this legislation before education workers have even exercised their charter-protected right to strike, the Ford government is attempting to short-circuit the bargaining process and strip workers of a fundamental freedom,” OFL president Patty Coates said in a statement.

“Doug Ford and his government are once again telling workers across the province that their rights don’t matter,” she added.