On Sunday, CUPE members gave official notice that they would be heading to the picket lines this Friday if negotiations were unsuccessful, and today talks closed with no deal being reached.
CUPE represents education workers including custodians, librarians, educational assistants, and early childhood educators, and as it stands those employees look poised to walk off the job and form picket lines at MPP offices all throughout Ontario.
As negotiations have largely stagnated between the two sides even after a new counter offer from CUPE, the Doug Ford Conservative government’s decision to use a notwithstanding clause in new legislation to force employees off the picket lines and back to work has drawn ire from many.
The newly passed Bill 28 has been criticized by members and non members alike, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling the legislation an “overuse of the notwithstanding clause”, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association calling the bill a “catastrophe for rights and freedoms.”
CUPE 1480 Local President Erin Provost says as a result, members and supporters will be picketing at MPP offices all throughout the province.
“Since this government is intent on putting through legislation that would trample our rights as workers and impose a contract, we figured that our fight was with the government and not with the school boards,” Provost said.
“So we needed to move our picket locations to the MPPs to put pressure on them to put pressure on Ford and Lecce to rescind their legislation so we can get back to the bargaining table and get an agreement.”
Provost said in general, most school boards are trying to remain neutral, having been put in a “sticky situation” between the government and education workers.
A number of those school boards announced earlier this week that they’ll be pivoting to remote learning on Friday as they prepare for strike action.
Limestone District School Board schools will be closed Friday, with the board sending out a release on Monday saying due to the critical roles these striking staff members play at school, they are forced with the decision to close their doors on Friday.
“Given the range of critical roles and services provided by CUPE members in Limestone, we cannot safely operate schools and offer in-person learning,” the release reads.
“We have no choice but to close schools and pivot to emergency remote learning… We are continuing to assess the impact of a full withdrawal of services for Limestone, but regular operations are not possible without the critical roles provided by CUPE employees.”
Ontario is offering education workers represented by CUPE a bump of between 1.5%-2.5%, but Provost says a caveat in the writing of the bill means that the overwhelming majority of employees will only see the lower end of those proposed raises.
She says in fact, the offer from the Ontario government has gotten worse and not better with time.
“The wage offer that they have put forward most recently in Bill 28 is actually worse than what they originally offered us,” Provost said.
“90 percent of the 55,000 workers across Ontario will only qualify for the 1.5 percent.”
With most employees represented currently making under $40,000 a year and inflation far outpacing previous raises, that amount along with the lack of job security and supports in classrooms makes the offer on the table untenable to members.
“What we’ve asked for is reasonable, affordable, and necessary and it makes sure that the students get the type of services they need and the workers have jobs that don’t force them to rely on the foodbank,” Provost said.
Liberal MPP Ted Hsu says he’s hoping to greet workers on the picket lines outside of his office tomorrow, and said the government’s handling of these negotiations hasn’t been very fair to the education workers.
Hsu said the government’s use of a notwithstanding clause is a “sledgehammer” against some of the most vulnerable workers in the education sector, and that if they are to be forced back to work they should be entitled to arbitration.
“If the CUPE workers aren’t able to threaten a strike they lose their bargaining power and that’s not fair to take that away,” Hsu said.
“If these are essential workers – so essential that the government is willing to use a notwithstanding clause to impose its own offer – if these workers are so essential then they should be granted arbitration to resolve the dispute.”
Conservative MPP for Lennox and Addington Ric Bresee, a former Union President who is also anticipated to have a picket line outside his office, was unable to be reached for comment.
Roughly 8,000 OPSEU members will also be walking off the job in solidarity on Friday, and other unions including PSAC 901 have thrown their support behind CUPE workers.
With the new legislation, striking workers could potentially face fines of up to $4000, and if fines are levied it could mark the first time in Canada’s history that workers’ right to strike is stripped away.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the ministry is prepared to start handing out fines if strikes go ahead.
While Ford and Lecce say the annual salary increase demand of 11.7% from CUPE workers isn’t doable, in July the Conservative government expanded its cabinet from 20 to 30 ministers at a cost of roughly $280,000 to Ontario taxpayers.