School, CUPE challenges Ford: Friday general strike

TORONTO – It will be a warm autumn in Ontario schools. CUPE responds to the Ford government’s legislation by calling a day of general strike on Friday. 

With the strike of non-teaching staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) ready to take place, the Ontario government has decided to take strong action. Today the Ministry of Education introduced the Keeping Students in Class Act in Queen’s Park, which imposes a contract on workers and prevents them from legally leaving work. The legislation is expected to be approved by Thursday.

On Sunday, CUPE gave the required five-day notice to kick off the abstention from work of 55,000 members that include educational assistants, guardians and early childhood educators. Negotiations to avert a strike in extremis proved difficult to the point that on Sunday evening Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the decision to prescribe workers. “Since CUPE refuses to withdraw its intention to strike, to avoid school closures we will have no choice but to introduce legislation tomorrow (today for the reader), which will ensure that students remain in the classroom,” he said.

Today the minister reiterated, once again, the government’s willingness to meet the workers. “We believe children deserve to be in the classroom. That’s why yesterday we offered CUPE an opportunity and presented a better deal, 10% in four years and maintaining the nation’s best retirement and sick leave benefits and programs,” Lecce said during the Question Period.

But on Friday, in all likelihood, the children of the province will not be able to go to school since the CUPE despite the legislation has decided to organize a day of protest throughout the province.

The union, therefore, is not intimidated and promises battle. During a press conference held in Queen’s Park after the presentation of the Keeping Students in Schools Act, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn confirmed the decision of non-teaching staff to abstain from work on Friday. “On Friday, regardless of what this legislation says, our members will take part in a provincial-level protest. This means that no CUPE education workers across the province will be at work, our union, as well as others, have challenged governments in the courts in the past and won. Enough is enough. We will not allow our rights to be erased.”

It is unclear at the moment whether CUPE members will continue to abstain from work on Monday, but while the union has promised to fight against the precept, the Ford government has indicated that it will invoke the Notwithstanding clause to protect the bill from legal disputes.

If passed, the bill will allow sanctions to be issued against any individual or bargaining agency that participates in a strike or “authorizes or threatens to call or authorize a strike.” Fines amount to $4,000 for individuals. However, higher fines of up to $500,000 could be imposed on the union itself under the legislation. “There are consequences and we have shared them with our members, but I think there are also repercussions if we don’t fight,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.