OTTAWA (Reuters) – Some 55,000 education workers went on strike on Friday in Canada’s most populous province of Ontario after failing to agree with the provincial government for better pay and more frontline staff in schools.
The workers, which include educational assistants, secretaries and library workers, served a notice of strike on Sunday saying they had been unsuccessful in negotiating a new contract with the Doug Ford-led Ontario government.
In anticipation of the strike, school boards in Toronto and Ottawa notified parents that schools would be shut for in-person learning on Friday and that students would need to work independently at home.
Ford’s Progressive Conservative government says the workers’ demands are too high and has passed a controversial law to force a contract on the workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and prevent them from going on strike.
It also includes a daily C$4000 fine for striking workers, which the union has said they will fight or pay, if needed.
Still, on Friday morning, workers had started picket lines at dozens of locations across the province, including outside the office of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
Lecce, calling the strike illegal in a statement on Friday, said the government had filed a submission to the Ontario Labour Relations Board against CUPE workers.
“Nothing matters more right now than getting all students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to us to do so,” Lecce said.
Government taking union to labour relations board over ‘illegal strike action’
Striking Ontario education workers are picketing at politicians’ offices across the province today, with a major demonstration planned for the legislature in Toronto.
That’s where, a day earlier, the Progressive Conservative government enacted a law imposing contracts on 55,000 education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 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.
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.
Education Minister Stephen 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 seeks outside financial help from other labour groups.
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 initially offered raises of two percent a year for workers making less than $40,000 and 1.25 percent for all others, but Lecce said the new, imposed four-year deal would give 2.5 percent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 percent raises for all others.
CUPE has said that framing is inaccurate because the raises depend on hourly wages and pay scales, so most workers who earn less than $43,000 in a year wouldn’t get 2.5 percent.
CUPE has said its workers, who average $39,000 a year, are generally the lowest paid in schools and have been seeking annual salary increases of 11.7 percent.
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. 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.
The Canadian Press