Ontario education workers hit the picket lines Friday morning in the first day of an indefinite strike as the education minister takes them to the Ontario Labour Relations Board.
Education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) were picketing at politicians’ offices, including hundreds outside the education minister’s constituency office in Vaughan, Ont., along with a large protest planned for the legislature, where hundreds of people were already gathered on the lawn.
That’s where, a day earlier, the Progressive Conservative government enacted a law imposing contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned them from striking.
The law also uses the notwithstanding clause to protect against constitutional challenges.
But CUPE says the law is an attack on all workers’ bargaining rights and is staging a strike anyway, warning that it will likely last longer than one day.
Aaron Guppy, a caretaker at York Region District School Board, was picketing outside of Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office on Friday morning.
“If they take away our rights as a union, every other union is next. They are not going to stop with just us,” he said.
“We are just here to basically show that we are not going to back down, we are not going to take this terrible deal. The people support us.”
The law sets out fines for violating a prohibition on strikes for the life of the agreement of up to $4,000 per employee per day, while there are fines of up to $500,000 for the union.
Lecce has suggested the government would indeed pursue those penalties, while the union has said it would foot the bill for fines levied against workers, which could cost as much as $220 million per day.
In a statement issued early Friday, Lecce said the ministry has already filed a submission to the Ontario Labour Relations Board in response to the “illegal strike action.”
He reiterated that the government “will use every tool available” to get students back in classrooms.
For its part, CUPE plans to fight the fines, but at the end of the day, the union has said if it has to pay, it will pay. CUPE leaders have previously suggested that the union is looking for outside financial help from other labour groups.
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Many school boards across the province, including the Toronto District School Board and most boards in eastern Ontario, have said schools will be closed during a strike, while others plan to move to remote learning.
The Ministry of Education has urged school boards to “implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible” and otherwise “must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning.”
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 Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal 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 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.
CUPE has said its workers, who make on average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and had been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 per cent.
The union said it cut its wage proposal by more than half in a counter-offer it gave the government Tuesday night and made “substantial” moves in other areas as well. However, the government said it would not negotiate unless CUPE cancelled the strike.
Members of many other unions are set to join CUPE members on the picket lines.