Ontario education workers will be furloughed Monday and beyond even if an Ontario labor board determines their strike is illegal, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) confirmed to CBC News.
Union members are on leave and political protests will continue into next week, a CUPE spokesperson said in an email to CBC Sunday night.
Thousands of education workers, including educational assistants, janitors and librarians, walked off work on Friday to protest the provincial government’s passage of a law banning strikes and imposing a four-year contract years, using the notwithstanding clause to avoid constitutional challenges.
A hearing at the Ontario Labor Relations Board (OLRB) to determine the legality of the strike concluded Sunday after three days of arguments between provincial government lawyers and CUPE.
CUPE’s intention to continue its actions, regardless of board rules, was first signaled by The Globe and Mail.
OLRB chairman Brian O’Byrne said he hoped to issue a decision before the start of the school week, but is not sure it can be done.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you when I’m going to give you a net result,” O’Byrne said. “I will try to do it by today. Hopefully I will succeed.”
A government lawyer argued before the council that it doesn’t matter whether the contract that now binds 55,000 employees was negotiated with their contribution or imposed on them.
Ferina Murji said strikes are prohibited in the middle of any contract, not just one that has been ratified by union members.
“A collective agreement is a collective agreement is a collective agreement,” she said.
The government is seeking a ruling that their walkout is illegal, while CUPE – which represents education workers – argues industrial action is a legitimate form of political protest.
The strike closed many schools across the province on Friday, with even more set to close on Monday.
“With 55,000 people out of school in the province, that means millions of students and their parents have nowhere to go, aren’t learning, aren’t getting the education that the Act education guarantees that they will get,” Murji said, emphasizing the importance of council intervention.
Several Ontario school boards have said they will switch to remote learning indefinitely next week if the strike by education workers continues. Some boards, including the Toronto District School Board, said they would go online as early as Monday. In-person classes at Northern Ontario’s largest school board will resume Monday after being canceled on Friday, the Rainbow District School Board confirmed in a letter to parents.
“Frenzy and Lack of Sleep”
O’Byrne heard arguments during 4 p.m. Saturday, with the hearing extending until early Sunday morning, before resuming a few hours later at 7 a.m.
As Day 3 of the hearing began, O’Byrne noted the “frenzied and sleep-deprived backdrop of the hearings”.
Earlier in the proceedings, counsel for CUPE argued that an imposed contract should not be treated the same as a contract negotiated through collective bargaining.
“I accept that Bill 28 is in writing. But it is not a voluntarily negotiated agreement,” Steven Barrett said on Saturday.
“It is deemed to be a collective agreement under Article 5 … but to call it a mid-contract withdrawal of services, as if it were a freely negotiated collective agreement, is fundamental nonsense. “
Barrett told O’Byrne that if he finds the strike legal, industrial action could continue until the government repeals its new legislation or until the union and government negotiate its end.
The province’s new law provides for fines for violating the strike ban of up to $4,000 per employee per day – which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers – and up to $4,000 per employee per day. at $500,000 a day for the union.
CUPE said it would fight the fines, but would also pay them if necessary.
Majority blames Ford government, poll finds
Meanwhile, Ontario residents appear to blame Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government for the contract dispute, according to a new opinion poll released Sunday.
Abacus Data’s online poll found that 62% of respondents blame the provincial government for school closures after education workers walked off the job on Friday. Thirty-eight percent point the finger at the workers.
Sixty-eight per cent of parents of school-aged children believe the Ford government bears the greatest responsibility, the poll found, while 71 per cent of respondents want the province to negotiate a “fair deal” with workers in education, rather than pursuing its current strategy.
The poll, conducted November 4-5, surveyed 1,000 adults and comes with a margin of error of 3.1%, 19 times out of 20, according to Abacus Data.
The union was demanding annual wage increases of 11.7% for its workers, who earn an average of $39,000 a year, but the imposed contract would grant annual increases of 2.5% to workers earning less than $43,000 and 1.5% for all others.
Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said the poll results show Ontarians support education workers in their lobbying.
“This poll confirms what we already knew: that the majority of people support education workers, that they see the Ford government’s lies about working for workers and students, that they know that 39 $000 is not enough and they believe the rights of workers to bargain freely and strike if necessary must always be protected,” Walton said in a statement.
“Seven out of 10 Ontarians want the government to negotiate a fair deal. It starts with repealing Bill 28, an unjust law that Ontarians know is like whacking a bully in the court ‘school.”
CBC News contacted the Prime Minister’s and Education Minister’s office for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.