The head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees said education support workers will be off work Monday and beyond regardless of the decision on the legality of their walkout by the province’s labor board.
Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, told The Globe and Mail in an interview Sunday that the union would continue its protests until the province repeals its legislation that mandated a four-year contract and banned workers’ right to strike.
“That is the very last thing any of our members would want to do. They would much rather be able to use their skills and passion in their workplace as they normally do every day,” he said “But what we started on Friday is what we will continue on Monday and we will continue beyond that until we achieve fairness and justice for our workers.”
“Whatever the labor board decides, our members have made a decision and we will continue to stand with them in resisting,” Hahn said.
About 55,000 education workers quit their jobs on Friday after the Ontario government legislated a four-year contract on the union and revoked its right to legally strike or challenge the contract in court using the notwithstanding clause of the Charter.
Proceedings before the Ontario Labor Relations Board (OLRB) continued early Sunday, having started late Thursday evening, as lawyers for the province argued that Friday’s action was illegal because a new contract had entered into force.
It remains unclear when a decision will be made by council chairman Brian O’Byrne, leaving school boards’ plans for Monday up in the air.
Many schools – including in Toronto, York and Peel – were closed on Friday as the union defied the government and walked out.
The Toronto District School Board is among several boards that have said they will remain closed to in-person learning this week if union members do not return to work. Councils said these workers provide essential day-to-day services such as dining room supervision, support in kindergarten classrooms and security on school grounds. Instead, the councils plan to offer remote learning.
In its application to the OLRB, the provincial government said it was seeking an “unlawful strike declaration” against CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, or OSBCU, which represents workers. Also named are Laura Walton, president of the OSBCU, and Fred Hahn, leader of CUPE Ontario. The government is asking for an order “ordering that all illegal strike activity cease immediately”.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has pledged to get the more than one million Ontario students who were forced to stay home on Friday back into the classroom using “every tool available.” “.
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Steven Barrett, a lawyer for the union, argued that the only option left for workers was to protest the government’s removal of their Charter-protected rights. The OSBCU argued in its own submission to the board that the industrial action that began on Friday is not a strike, but rather a “legitimate political protest” to oppose the “government’s decision to trample on the employees’ constitutional right to bargain collectively and the right to strike.”
On Sunday morning, Mr O’Byrne mused on the idea of sending the two sides back to bargaining, although the government argued that would be beyond the council’s jurisdiction to rule on the legality of the industrial action .
“This whole bill is uncharted territory. We have never had such a bill in the history of Canada,” he said.
The Ontario Federation of Labor held protests across the province on Saturday in support of education workers, including one in Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto.
On Friday, OSBCU members, which include educational assistants, custodians and other support staff, set up picket lines in front of politicians’ offices and the provincial Legislative Assembly at Queen’s Park.
Asked on Friday what the union would do if the OLRB objected, Ms Walton did not indicate next steps but said she was looking at a number of options.
“We’ll have to see,” she said outside the legislature. She added that workers have called for the protest to continue until the government comes up with a better deal.
The union faces steep fines for its actions under the law, known as Bill 28: $4,000 a day for each worker who quits, with the union fined $500,000 a day. The OSBCU said it was not aware of any fines imposed for Friday’s protests. Hahn said the union plans to fight fines imposed by the provincial government.
In a memo to school boards, the government said it wanted them to do ‘everything possible’ to keep schools open, and that if there are health and safety concerns, boards should carry out a “rapid transition” to distance learning.
Not all school boards were closed on Friday. Some, including the Waterloo Region District School Board, said none of their employees were OSBCU members, meaning their classrooms are not facing disruption.
The Halton District School Board, meanwhile, said it would alternate between in-person and remote learning for its elementary schools if the union’s industrial action continues in the coming week.
The collective agreement imposed on the OSBCU by government legislation provides annual wage increases of 2.5% for workers earning less than $43,000 and 1.5% for those earning more. Both increases are well below what the union is asking for.
Mr Lecce said the legislation was needed to keep children in classrooms after their learning was disrupted during the pandemic and by pre-pandemic labor disputes.
The government’s use of the notwithstanding clause has drawn much criticism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media on Friday that he had spoken with national union leaders about Ontario’s “inappropriate preventive use” of the clause, and that the federal government “stands strongly for workers in our country”. Ottawa said it was exploring options for intervening in Ontario’s decision, but did not provide details.
The Ontario government and the OSBCU have been in talks for much of the past week. Last Sunday, the union gave the required five-day strike notice.
Ms Walton said the government would not budge on the terms of the contract imposed by its legislation, after rejecting a union counter-offer on Wednesday. This included annual wage increases of around 6% for workers, who the union says are among the lowest paid in the education sector. The union previously demanded annual wage increases of 11.7%.
The contracts of all education unions, including teachers, expired at the end of August. It was widely expected that this round of negotiations would be difficult. The other unions are still in discussion with the government.
Several other unions have expressed their support for the OSBCU. Members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario took part in the protests on Friday.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, said it would donate $100,000 to help pay fines imposed on OSBCU members.
The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation said Saturday it would send $1 million to support the OSBCU.