Canadian education workers in wildcat strike

With the UK government preparing legislation to compel striking workers in key infrastructure jobs to provide an essential “minimum service”, Labour Hub reports on how the policy is being challenged in Canada.

 

Source > Labour Hub

Over the past several decades, governments in Canada have intervened in labour disputes on behalf of employers with increasing frequency. In recent years, postal workers, teaching assistants, college instructors, pilots, healthcare workers, and others, have had their collective bargaining rights trampled by back-to-work legislation passed at both the provincial and federal levels.

This week, Ontario’s Conservative government added 55,000 education workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)’s Ontario’s School Board Council of Unions to that list. The union’s members originally voted 96.5 per cent in favour of strike action last month on a nearly 83 per cent turnout, in protest against an pay offer  that wold give low paid education staff a raise of roughly 40 to 70 cents per hour. This, from a government that is sitting on a $2.1 billion surplus for 2021-22, expected to reach $8.5-billion by 2027-28.

The offer is a long way short of the increases of $3.25 per hour, or approximately 11.7 per cent, which CUPE is asking for. The inflation rate in Ontario hit 6.7 per cent in September and it’s estimated that education workers have received an effective wage cut of 10.2 per cent over the past decade.

Bill 28’s Attack on Trade Union Freedoms

Rather than negotiate seriously, Ontario’s government ignored the union’s democratic mandate and rushed through draconian legislation in an attempt to avert a legal strike. Bill 28, the bizarrely titled Keeping Students in Class Act, 2022, would not only impose the government’s contract, it would keep employees on the job by invoking the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, or more precisely, Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to override the fundamental freedoms, rights to life, liberty and security of person, and equality rights of education workers to challenge the province’s government – despite the Human Rights Code. It’s an unprecedented step, taken because recent back-to-work laws have been retroactively found to be unconstitutional.

Given the confrontational approach of Ontario premier Doug Ford’s government, this move is not so surprising. However, the response of CUPE is. Rather than continue to work and vow to fight the law in court, CUPE announced that, despite the legislation, its members would take action, beginning Friday November 4th.

Since the introduction of Bill 28, the government has not only attempted to get parents on side with its agenda, but Doug Ford also personally appealed to rank-and-file education workers, claiming the government has no quarrel with the workers themselves – only with union leadership. Ontario’s plan to use the ‘notwithstanding’ clause as a cudgel in its bargaining was criticized as “wrong” by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose own federal Liberal government imposed back-to-work legislation on postal workers in 2018, and whose father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was responsible for introducing the charter – ‘notwithstanding’ clause and all. The plan has also been decried by education advocates as an authoritarian intervention that suspends collective bargaining in Ontario’s public sector.

Education workers have refused to cower in the face of the government’s escalating threats. On November 1st, thousands of workers confronted the government in the streets, demonstrating outside the provincial Ministry of Labour in Toronto. Flying the flags of Ontario’s public sector unions, they were met in solidarity by a number of private sector workers, from industrial unions in the electrical and steel sectors, and retired unionists. “This is not just about education workers,” CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn told the crowd gathered on University Avenue. “It is about all workers.”

Resistance to the assault on trade union freedoms in Canada is long overdue. CUPE education workers are providing a new and inspiring rallying cry. But for CUPE’s wildcat strike to succeed and for the defence of public and private sector unionised workers in the medium and longer term, will require building a wider, deeper and ultimately, more radical response. The broad support of workers and the labour movement will be required.

There are already encouraging early signs of mobilization: the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario suspended its own collective bargaining negotiations with the province; the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) educational workers are engaging in a solidarity strike and the Ontario Federation of Labour, along with its affiliates (and Unifor – a general trade union, the largest private sector union in Canada), are organizing strategic picketing, rallies and demonstrations in solidarity with CUPE.

Why is this happening?

The legislation that was cynically passed will deny CUPE workers the right to strike and impose severe limits on their incomes for four years. The ‘notwithstanding’ clause will eliminate their right to seek relief in the courts during that period as well. Further, there is a $500,000 daily fine levied against the union for every day on strike and up to $4,000 per individual striker.

The immediate targets of the law are the underpaid and overworked education workers. Their work is essential to the operation of the public school system. They provide the infrastructure for Canada’s schools, as teaching assistants, secretaries and custodians.

Their average pay is $39,000 per year and that has lost value due to inflation and the stingy limitations placed on their wages, as part of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s earlier Bill 124 that capped increases for public sector workers.

Premier Ford and his Education Minister Stephen Lecce cynically claim that this is necessary to keep kids in school, after the experience of the COVID pandemic closures, trying to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of parents, who have to provide for childcare if schools are closed, and students, many of whom have fallen behind during the pandemic period.

But it is Ford and his government who are guaranteeing school closings by refusing to bargain with the CUPE workers – even after their dramatic compromise offer – knowing full well that this will surely cause chaos.

The goal of Ford and co is not to provide quality education for students – after all, they cut $800 per student in spending and increased class sizes and, all the while they are nursing a budget surplus. They know that their acts will cause disruption and anxiety among parents, teachers and students – just like their predecessors in the mid-1990s in the Conservative government of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.

They want to make it impossible for public sector workers to bargain collective agreements, and they are seeking to ride a wave of parent anxiety, in order to limit the bargaining rights and lower the wages and benefits of CUPE workers, as a prelude to going after other public sector workers -teachers, nurses and medical workers. Additionally, they have close ties to private businesses looking to privatise components of and weaken confidence in the public education system as a whole.

If they can get away with the precedent of outlawing the right to strike and freely bargain against the CUPE education workers, what’s to stop them from doing the same thing to other public sector unionised workers and even private sector workers – whom they can deem ‘essential’ to the operation of the economy? The result could be a return to the dark ages of anti-unionism, violence and an even lower wage economic environment.

Resistance

The CUPE education workers have built a solid base inside their local. They have prepared their members for this kind of an attack and they are refusing to back down in the face of this cowardly and cynical attack on their and all of our rights. They struck on Friday November 4th, and OPSEU educational workers, led by their newly elected provincial leader, JP Hornick, have openly joined them in refusing to work until there is a decent settlement.

They have received support from the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and a number of other unions, for a series of demonstrations, rallies and picketing. This is important and should be celebrated.

The labour and community networks need to come to the aid of the CUPE workers, and to keep the momentum going as it continues and what come after. This is not a battle that will end soon – regardless of what the government does in the next few days. Building against Ford and creating a fighting infrastructure of struggle and political understanding in the union movement, inspired by the CUPE fight will take longer, but it needs to happen.

This report is compiled, with thanks, from material primarily published by the Socialist Project, a Toronto-based organisation that supports the rebuilding of the socialist left in Canada and around the world.

Image: c/o CUPE Ontario on twitter, https://twitter.com/CUPEOntario/status/1587614270061256705


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