Canada: Attacks on Ontarian educators’ trade union rights unleashes wave of solidarity

published 4 November 2022 updated 29 November 2022

Education unions in Canada and the world over have shown support for Ontario’s workers and unionists firmly opposed to a bill imposed by the provincial government that threatens school support staff with fines of C$4,000 (€3,000) a day for striking.

Doug Ford’s conservative provincial government passed legislation that unilaterally imposes a contract on education workers and levies hefty fines for striking. The move escalates a bitter dispute over salary demands for education workers, including custodians, early childhood educators and education assistants.

Bill 28 fast-tracked to counter planned strike

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents more than 700,000 workers across Canada, has called for an 11.3% raise for its 55,000 education support workers in Ontario– often the lowest-paid in schools – arguing that stagnant wage growth and high inflation have hit the workers, earning an average of $39,000 a year, the hardest.

The Ontario government has countered with a 2.5% annual raise for the lowest-income workers and 1.5% raises for others.

With little progress on negotiations and a strike planned on 4 November, the government fast-tracked Bill 28 to strip workers’ right to strike, force a contract and impose fines for striking workers of C$4,000 (€3,000) and the union C$500,000 (€375,000) a day. The legislation marks the first time in the county’s history that the right of workers to collectively bargain and to strike was legally stripped away.

A breach to the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By invoking the rarely used legal mechanism known as the Notwithstanding Clause, which allows provincial and territorial governments to override certain portions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year period, the Ontario government stripped workers of their right to strike, which it maintains was its priority.

Even though Canada’s top court recognised workers’ right to strike as an “indispensable component” of the Charter in 2015, the Notwithstanding Clause wins the day. However, in cases where employees are deemed essential, the right to strike is replaced by arbitration.

The Ontario Bar Association also condemned the move, calling the uncertainty surrounding fundamental rights “potentially destabilising” and prompting fears that any short-term gains won by the Ford government could come at a cost to society “that might not be recognised until it’s too late”.

For the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU-SEFPO), which represents approximately 180,000 full- and part-time people working for the Ontario government, called education workers to walk off the job on 4 November “in a monumental show of solidarity with their CUPE colleagues.” The union insisted that “Bill 28 isn’t just an attack on education workers’ collective bargaining rights, it is an attack on all workers’ rights”.

Support from Canada’s education unions

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE), an Education International (EI) affiliate, publicly supported Ontario’s education support workers, stating “the Ford government’s trampling of #onted workers' rights is an affront to quality publicly funded public education,” and called on all unions “to take immediate action against this Charter violation and threat to democracy”.

Éric Gingras, president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) – also an affiliate of EI –, underlined that “the CSQ stands in solidarity with CUPE colleagues in Ontario! A special law in the midst of negotiation is an affront to the right to negotiate. It is also bullying”

International solidarity

“We are in full solidarity with CTF/FCE members in Ontario where shockingly the government has flaunted the Constitution by imposing a contract on 55,000 education support personnel and made any job action illegal,” further highlighted EI General Secretary David Edwards.

Edwards welcomed international solidarity offered to Ontarian educators by education unions around the world.