Education Workers Standing By, Not Standing Down

Political protest at Queen's Park November 7, 2022, the day the Ford government announced it would repeal Bill 28.

Since the Ontario government announced on November 7, 2022 that it was repealing the Keeping Students in Class Act, and again after it was repealed by the Ontario Legislature on November 14, The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers and their leadership made it clear that they are not giving up their right to strike, nor their actions in defence of their rights, while they attempt to negotiate with the government. The government proceeded with repealing the legislation on November 14 when the Legislature resumed sitting again after a week break.

Already, on November 9, the government officially requested that the Unlawful Strike Application, filed by the Minister of Education with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), be withdrawn. OLRB Chair Brian O'Byrne accepted the request and terminated the application. CUPE had made it clear they were prepared to continue their protests even if they were declared illegal by the OLRB, while the government was seeking to force the OLRB to do its bidding by rubber stamping its imposed contract as legal, despite it being illegitimate. In this sense, the withdrawal of the application, like the repeal of the legislation, has saved the government from an open political challenge to its legitimacy in the form of mass protests and defiance of its use of the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution.

Despite repealing the legislation and withdrawing its application to the OLRB, the Ontario government has done nothing to acknowledge that its use of the notwithstanding clause was wrong. It is clear that the government will try to get the outcome it wants in other ways.

Meanwhile, reports circulated that mediation between CUPE and the government got underway on Tuesday, November 8. On November 9 CUPE announced its commitment to limit its comments in the media in order to 'better direct [...] efforts to reaching a freely negotiated agreement and called on the government to do the same in order to focus on achieving a deal." This came following a government press conference on November 8 in which Premier Doug Ford focused on trying to divide education workers in the face of growing unity. According to Ford, his plan to humiliate CUPE was not about breaking unions and using funds from the public education pocket to pay the rich, but rather about protecting the public purse from an agreement that would set a pattern for the teachers and other public sector workers. He argued that he really does want to look out for the lowest paid workers.

In his press conference, Ford said that increases for CUPE could lead to "tens of billions of dollars" of increases to teachers, and he needs to watch Ontario's bottom line. "That's money we need for schools, health care, transit, and infrastructure," Ford said. "It's money we need for vital services that hard-working people of this province rely on."

Such attempts to cut off support of teachers and all Ontarians for the just claims of the lowest paid workers in Ontario for wages and working conditions which they need are despicable. The people of Ontario are in no mood to accept them but the exchange of information and consultation with rank and file education workers and the teachers remains of utmost importance and a demand of the base.

If a deal is reached at the negotiating table, a significant matter is the process for CUPE members to decide on the deal. CUPE's Ontario School Boards' Council of Unions (OSBCU) structure requires a simple 50 per cent plus one member vote.The other education unions that have established voting processes for tentative agreements require a majority of the individual members of the provincial union and a majority of the locals or districts in the provincial union to vote in favour of an agreement. 

All of this and more was raised between November 8 and 10, when CUPE, joined by other education unions, organized various online and in-person mass meetings across Ontario to address the unfolding situation. Many of the meetings had been originally convoked to announce and plan for the province-wide shutdown that was being prepared had Ford not agreed to repeal Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act. Despite the government standing down on the legislation, many unions went ahead with these meetings. For CUPE's part, the meetings informed members about what had taken place, the plans for the following week and emphasized that the union was not giving up its right to strike.

In other education unions, meetings brought members up to speed on what had transpired over the weekend and how the various unions had come together to stand with CUPE and demand the repeal of Bill 28. At a number of these meetings, members gave their views and asked questions about where things are heading and what should be done. One concern on the minds of many was how to build practical solidarity amongst teachers and education workers in advance of whatever the Ford government might try to do to break the unity that has been established. Another issue was how some school boards that closed schools during the protests swiftly shifted to online learning as a means of keeping schools running. Many raised this as something to be addressed going forward so as to make sure remote online learning cannot be used to carry on "business as usual" during strikes or political protests.

Others raised the demand to oppose fraudulent claims by the government that there is only so much money in the pot as a way to break the unity of teachers and education workers by pitting them against each other by presenting the matter of everyone fighting for a bigger slice of a limited pie. Who sets the budget in the first place and determines the size of the pie has become a central issue and all the pay-the-rich scams get covered up and then wrong-headed ideas are floated such as an alleged need for the people to pay higher taxes to fund education and social programs.

Overall, what the exchanges with rank and file teachers and education workers have revealed is that the members of the various education unions want the broadest possible unity of all teachers and education workers, and not to permit anyone to be isolated or targeted by the government as the government has done by targeting CUPE with the use of the notwithstanding clause.

Locally-elected leaders made it clear that they too have been speaking up within the provincial organizations to build that unity now on a permanent basis. This has shown to be the only real power the workers have as demonstrated in the support for the protests which forced the Ford government to withdraw the anti-worker legislation.

To complete the events preceding the repeal of the anti-workers Bill 58, over the weekend of November 12-13 CUPE held regional actions at specific cabinet ministers' and parliamentary secretaries' offices across the province and phone zaps to keep up the pressure on the government.

Toronto at Premier Doug Ford's Office

King City at Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce's Office

Barrie at MPP Doug Downey's Office

Hamilton: MPP Neil Lumsden's Office

Beamsville at MPP Sam Oosterhof's Office

Strathroy at Minister of Labour, Monte McNaughton's Office

North Bay at MPP Vic Fedeli's Office

Napanee at MPP Ric Bresee's Office

Ottawa at MPP Lisa MacLeod's Office

Sarnia at MPP Robert Bailey's Office

(Photos: TML, CUPE ON, CUPE 4400, CUPE 1358, CUPE 7575, ETFO, BDLC, HDLC, Parents Action Network, F. Hahn, P. Coates, B. Nesbitt, P. Reinio, J. Parker, M. Pomfret, C. Pasma, C. Nadon)

This article was published in
Number 3 - November 15, 2022

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