A union representing tens of thousands of education workers in Ontario called off planned strike actions on Monday in exchange for the Doug Ford government promising to rescind legislation that imposed a contract and made going on strike illegal.

When the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) announced on Sunday a press conference for Monday morning, media outlets like City News confirmed there were plans to announce a general strike in response to the Ford government’s draconian legislation.

Ford responded by scheduling his own press conference to take place an hour earlier. During the conference, Ford was asked if he wished he had done anything differently in regards to Bill 28 the legislation that imposed a new contract with "insulting" 1.5 and 2.5 per cent pay increases for workers making an average of $39,000 per year replying: “Absolutely not.” He then refused to say whether he would again use the notwithstanding clause, which made going on strike illegal, in future labour disputes.

Ford suggested that withdrawing the use of the notwithstanding clause was an option if CUPE workers called off planned strike action. Although news outlets like CP24 said the premier’s willingness to rescind the use of Section 33 – the notwithstanding clause – was an “olive branch,” his position was only a slight alteration of his government’s previous demand that the strike be cancelled before negotiations could continue.

It was not immediately clear that the Ford government’s potential withdrawal from using Section 33 would be extended to rescinding Bill 28 in its entirety during the conference, but this was confirmed later by Global News reporter Colin D’Mello. D’Mello also confirmed that Ford had no plans to recall the legislature to process the repeal this week.

CUPE’s press conference was subsequently delayed, as the union’s leaders were reportedly in talks with Ford about the specifics of the deal. CUPE representatives, who were accompanied by private and public sector union leaders from across the country, then announced that they had agreed to end the current walkout.

The deal does not guarantee there will not be future strikes. President of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions Laura Walton said Monday the union is still willing to strike if negotiations fall apart.

The Ontario legislature is not sitting this week, and MPPs will not be recalled early for the vote to repeal Bill 28. The repeal motion will be tabled on Nov. 14.

Adam D.K King, a union researcher, told The Maple via email that CUPE made the right move. King said if the strike had been unsuccessful, CUPE workers would still be under the conditions imposed by Bill 28.

“By returning to the bargaining table, the union no longer faces an imposed contract,” said King.

How We Got to This Point

After Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party used the notwithstanding clause in Bill 28, suppressing CUPE members’ constitutional right to strike, the union continued with its announced plans for strike action.

On Nov. 4, the first day of the strike, there were 126 CUPE actions across Ontario, with an estimated 8,000-10,000 people joining the protest at Queen’s Park, according to CTV’s Heather Butts.

Ford’s government used the notwithstanding clause to override the constitution, impose a four-year contract on 55,000 CUPE workers, make their strike action illegal and levy individual fines of $4,000 against each striking worker, and $500,000 against the union. Labour experts said the use of the notwithstanding clause in this manner amounted to an unprecedented attack on workers.

The passage of Bill 28 was surrounded by heated protest. On Nov. 2, the House Speaker ejected more than a dozen NDP MPPs for refusing to retract comments calling Ford a liar or refusing to come to order. Two days prior, the Ford government had called for a 5 a.m. sitting to preemptively expedite Bill 28 before the strike took place. During the vote, CUPE members shouted “shame” at conservative MPPs.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce continually repeated his stance that the CUPE strike was preventing students from being in schools, harming parents and disrupting learning. However, the public was largely in support of CUPE workers and disapproving of Ford, Lecce and the PC government’s handling of negotiations.

In a survey conducted by Abacus Data, 62 per cent blamed the provincial government for schools being closed, 48 per cent supported the idea of other unions walking off the job in solidarity with CUPE and only 29 per cent wanted the Ford government to continue with its heavy handed approach.

The Ford government’s decision to pass Bill 28 was a sign of overconfidence, according to King. “I think the Ford government overplayed its hand,” he explained. “The government managed to unite the entire labour movement in an effort to repeal Bill 28 and protect the Charter rights of workers across Canada.”

King also said that while Ford’s refusal to commit to not using the notwithstanding clause again poses potential issues for the labour movement in the future, “unions have demonstrated the public consequences of doing so.”

Solidarity and Action

Before Monday’s agreement, independent media outlets reported over the weekend that the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and CUPE had been considering launching mass protests on Nov. 12, followed by a general strike on Monday the 14th. This plan was later confirmed by other news outlets.

Even before plans for a general strike were reported, other unions showed their support for CUPE workers. Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President J.P. Hornick announced last Thursday that 8,000 OPSEU members were walking out on Friday in support of CUPE.

The British Columbia Teachers Federation announced Saturday that the union’s representative assembly had voted to send $1 million to CUPE Ontario to cover fines incurred as a result of Bill 28. Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, pledged $100,000 to support striking CUPE workers.

At the same time, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) President Rob Cormier announced that 81 per cent of his union’s membership voted against a Metrolinx contract offer, which triggered a strike on Nov. 7 after a deal was not reached. Although negotiations between ATU and Metrolinx have been ongoing since April, Cormier announced the news during the CUPE rally at Queen’s Park on Friday.

During the Nov. 4 action, CUPE President Fred Hahn told The Maple that he was focused on the courage of his fellow union members.

“It’s why 8,000 OPSEU workers who work in schools are joining us,” Hahn explained. “It’s why others are joining us, and it’s why I have hope that after years of government after government thinking they can just trample on working people and strip us of our rights, that finally people are going to say ‘enough is enough.’”

Phillippe Tessier, a train conductor at Canadian National and a member of the Teamsters union, came from Montreal to show his support at Queen’s Park on Friday. Tessier discussed ways his union had recently supported others taking action for better pay and conditions.

In one instance, his local drafted a letter that the union president signed in support of a public sector workers’ strike in New Brunswick last year. “It’s things like that, using the union structure and using the union as they are today; it’s the only weapon we've got,” said Tessier. “It’s the only thing we can use to defend ourselves from attacks on our conditions.”

Where to Go from Here?

King said the repeal of Bill 28 is undoubtedly progress for the state of the Ontario labour movement and CUPE workers. “CUPE and its members are now back at the table with their rights restored, after having demonstrated an unprecedented level of union strength and public support,” he explained. “Although there are no guarantees at the bargaining table (there never are), they have tipped the balance of power in their favour.”

Although the situation on Friday was drastically different from the one on Monday, Hahn said at the Queen’s Park rally that the idea of parents and workers being on different sides was a false dichotomy.  

“There is no divide,” said Hahn. “The government is trying to say there are parents and there are workers. It’s bullshit. Parents are workers. Workers are parents. We are not different; we are the same.”

Tessier said he sees "a need to fight'' emerging from workers amid the growing number of strikes happening across North America. While Canada has a nominal labour party, Tessier sees a need for a much stronger voice in Parliament tied more directly to the economic power that unions provide. “You’ve got fights like this one, you might win, you might lose, but then after that, there’s going to be another one,” said Tessier. “We need to have a labour party based on the unions.”

King said while the repealing of the unprecedented and “draconian” legislation was a good start, there needs to be consistent momentum going forward. “In the short-term, that mobilization will need to be maintained to ensure CUPE education workers make gains at the bargaining table,” he said.

“In the long-term, I hope unions in the education sector and beyond can harness this victory and the organizing it necessitated to push for much more.”

Scott Martin is a journalism student at Toronto Metropolitan University. His work has appeared in Canadian Dimension, Passage, the Kingstonist and Ricochet. He also writes for The Beaverton under the name Scott Pinkerton.

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