Simcoe County custodial staff were joined by other education workers from at least two other provincial unions for a protest at the Simcoe-Grey MPP’s office
Simcoe County education workers from two unions went on strike today along with their peers across the province, not only over failed contract negotiations but also over new legislation being passed by the province to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Outside the Stayner constituency office, Simcoe-Grey MP Brian Saunderson, workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) formed a line of picket on November 4. They were supported by union leaders from the Simcoe County Elementary Teachers’ Federation (the local chapter of the provincial union representing elementary teachers).
Although the strike is led by CUPE members, a decision by the government to pass legislation forcing CUPE to accept the contract and making the strike illegal prompted OPSEU members to get involved as well. The members walked out on November 4 to join the CUPE picket lines.
In Simcoe County, CUPE represents custodial staff and OPSEU represents teacher’s aides, library staff and computer workers.
OPSEU Local 330 secretary Donna Caissie said the government’s handling of the situation amounted to “dictatorship.”
“This is a very sad day for all of Ontario, not just education workers, because this bill is going to impact all unionized workers in Ontario, so it’s going to affect more than us” , Caissie said, pointing to the fact that all education union contracts expired on August 31 and so all will be at the bargaining table with the province over the next few months.
She noted that education workers represented by CUPE and OPSEU are among the lowest paid in the province.
“A lot of OPSEU members have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said the education assistant, who works at a school in Wasaga Beach. “If I’m honest, I think our salary is $37,000…before taxes. How do you live on $37,000? You can not.
Caissie has worked as an educational assistant for 20 years. On the picket lines were other education workers, including teacher aides from Mountain View Elementary School.
On Thursday, the province passed legislation (Bill 28) to use the notwithstanding clause to force CUPE members back to work by forcing a four-year contract not accepted by the union and making a strike illegal and all strikers face fines of up to $4,000 a day, plus fines of up to $500,000 for the union.
According to the Legislature’s record of proceedings on November 3, Bill 28 passed at Queen’s Park with a vote of 76 in favor and 32 against. The notes indicate that MPP Saunderson voted in favour.
The notwithstanding clause is part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that a government can use to deviate from and/or overrule sections of the Charter that set out fundamental freedoms, legal rights and equality rights. It cannot apply to democratic, mobility or language rights. Laws passed under the notwithstanding clause can remain in force for five years and can be re-enacted.
This is the first time an Ontario government has used the notwithstanding clause for back-to-work legislation. The bill passed Thursday bars employees from striking or negotiating other wages, legally binding education workers to a four-year contract. The four-year contract currently imposed by the province says it will give a 2.5% annual raise to workers earning less than $43,000 a year and a 1.5% raise to everyone else.
CUPE disputed that statement, saying the increases are based on hourly rates and pay scales, so the contract won’t actually give all workers earning less than $43,000 the full 2.5 %.
CUPE originally asked for an 11.7% raise for its workers earning $39,000 or less (about $4,500 a year before taxes, or about $3 an hour).
Ken Parton, a CUPE member and caretaker working in Simcoe County, said the province’s handling of negotiations with education workers made him think of the communism his father and grandfather fought against during the world wars.
He was one of many protesters outside Saunderson’s office on November 4.
“The (notwithstanding clause) has never been used for back-to-work legislation,” Parton said. “It’s not necessary at the moment… We have to get rid of it.” Communism takes hold.
He pointed out that Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce had secured an increase of more than 10% over the past two years.
According to information disclosed on the Sunshine List, Lecce’s salary increased from $150,531 to $165,851 between 2019 and 2020, an increase of 10.2%, or $15,320 per year, or about $7.50 Of time. The base salary for all MPPs in Ontario is $116,500 and Cabinet Ministers earn $165,850.
Last month, Premier Doug Ford’s government announced a $2.1 billion budget surplus for the 2021-22 fiscal year as inflation has driven up the cost of goods and services, resulting in higher tax revenues for Ontario.
However, those who struck outside Saunderson’s office on Nov. 4 said they were there too because they believed the rights of all unionized workers were being violated.
“Right now it’s the education workers who are being affected… This will eventually affect all unions in Ontario,” Caissie said.
Simcoe County Elementary Teachers’ Federation leaders Jennifer Klaassen (first vice-president) and Jason Durance (third vice-president) joined the picket line to show support for their fellow education workers.
Durance said their support was two-fold.
“Everyone deserves a living wage,” he said. “These are front-line employees who face difficult situations and they are the lowest paid. If you’re a single parent who can’t afford rent, how fair is that when you’re a professional? »
Second, he said, there has been a precedent set by the government for using the notwithstanding clause to nullify union workers’ legal right to strike.
“I think the government has demonstrated, by using an opt-out clause that was never intended for this purpose, that this could happen in any sector,” Durance said. “If we negotiate our contracts next, it could happen to us, and it could happen to doctors and nurses, whoever has a negotiated contract, and that should make everyone nervous.”
Klaassen pointed out the injustice of removing Charter rights.
“That’s just wrong,” she said. “We have the right to bargain collectively, we have the right to strike, and they took that away from this group. It’s not right and it’s not right, and that’s why we’re here today.
In an open letter to Ford, the Christian Labor Association of Canada (representing 60,000 workers in various sectors) called the government’s use of the notwithstanding clause “overreactive” and unnecessary.
“It is generally accepted that the right to impose economic sanctions on an employer is what establishes a balance of power in our system of collective bargaining,” the letter states, noting that education workers have been deprived of the tools to do it.
The union association suggested there were other ways to “keep kids in school,” which Lecce said was the reason for the Charter waiver. He argued before the legislature that “children have rights too.”
“Students and working families should not be pawns in a struggle for bargaining power, and the 55,000 working women, most of whom are women, whose wages have eroded,” the letter from the association. “As things stand, the wage increases in Bill 28 fall far short of the increases achieved by unionized and non-unionized workers in the province.
The Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and one million unionized workers, also spoke out against Bill 28.
The federation said the government failed to negotiate in good faith with CUPE and called Bill 28 “groundbreaking legislation for unions,” in a post today on its social media page.
“Law 28 is an attack on everyone. If we let Doug Ford off the hook, other workers will have to deal the same threat: contracts imposed by law instead of free collective bargaining. We won’t let that happen.
The federation urges everyone to join picket lines in support of education workers, send messages to local MPP offices, put up posters and wear purple and share photos on social media in solidarity with education workers.
According to Caissie, the mood in the picket line at Stayner was “upbeat,” with solidarity among workers from different unions.
“The support from people who pass by has also been amazing,” she said.
CUPE represents 55,000 education workers in Ontario and 715,000 in Canada.
The current strike by CUPE members is indefinite. So far, OPSEU has only committed to joining the picket lines on Nov. 4.
Public and Catholic schools in Simcoe County were closed to in-person learning today due to strikes.
This is the second time the province has used the notwithstanding clause to pass a bill, and both times have been under Ford’s leadership. His government used it to reinstate parts of the Election Finances Act in June 2021, to limit third-party spending to $600,000 on advertising in the year before an election is called.
Quebec has used the clause for its law prohibiting public sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab and turban at work.
— With files from The Canadian Press