Ontario government repeals anti-strike law for CUPE education workers

Education workers at Ontario’s legislature erupted into cheers and applause on Monday as Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government repeated a law that had imposed a contract on them and banned them from striking.

Lawmakers voted unanimously to repudiate Bill 28, taking just 20 minutes to have the legislation “deemed for all purposes never to have been in force.”

The province had passed the legislation on Nov. 3 in a bid to prevent 55,000 workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees from striking.

But thousands of workers, including education assistants, librarians and custodians, walked off the job anyway, shutting many schools across the province for in-person learning for two days.

Last week, Premier Doug Ford offered to withdraw the legislation if CUPE members returned to work, which they did.

CUPE members declared victory on Monday.

“I feel vindicated,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“I think for the education of workers, this was a fight, this was a fight for the province of Ontario, and I really hope it serves a message: you cannot strip the rights of workers away.”

The government’s law, which used the notwithstanding clause to guard against constitutional challenges, had set fines for violating the legislation at a maximum of $4,000 per employee per day and up to $500,000 per day for the union.

CUPE, government still ‘far apart,’ union says

The two sides returned to the bargaining table last Tuesday.

In a news conference Monday, Walton noted the two sides are still “far apart” in negotiations.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce wasn’t in the legislature when the government repeated the bill. Earlier in the question period, Lecce said the government is going to stay at the table to get a deal done that “keeps kids in the classroom.”

“That is our commitment,” he said. “That’s what we’re guided by, that’s what the people of Ontario sent us here to do.”

The government originally offered raises of two per cent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others, but the four-year deal imposed by Bill 28 would give 2.5 per cent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent raises for all others.

CUPE members and supporters rallied outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto on Nov. 4, the first day of an indefinite strike that closed schools in boards across the province. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

CUPE has said that framing is not accurate because the raises actually depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so the majority of workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn’t get 2.5 per cent.

The union has said the workers, who make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and have been seeking an annual salary increase of 11.7 per cent. CUPE said it cut its wage proposal by more than half in a counter-offer in early November and made “substantial” moves in other areas as well.

‘This act should never have been introduced’

On Sunday, Ford said he doesn’t regret using the notwithstanding clause, which allows a government to override charter rights for a five-year period.

“I don’t,” he said. “It’s in the constitution.”

Ford said a strike was “more devastating” than using the notwithstanding clause.

“Keeping the kids at home, being dumped off on the grandparents, employers calling up saying, ‘We need the people,’ I think that’s a little more serious in my opinion,” he said.

“It affects the whole economy.”

After news of the bill’s repeal, Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, the executive director and general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, called for Ford to commit to never invoking the notwithstanding clause again.

“This act should never have been introduced and was an affront to the rights and freedoms of every person in Canada,” Mendelsohn Aviv said in a statement.

She previously noted that Ontario had never used the clause until recently, with Ford’s government threatening to use it three times in the last four years.

“Every provincial, territorial, and federal government must understand: the Charter represents our aspirations for a free and just society — and we will fight to protect it.”