Ontario’s education minister says the province has no “tolerance for disruption” as the hearing to determine the legality of a strike by educators continues this weekend.
A government attorney argued during the hearing on Saturday that the Ontario Labor Relations Board risks undermining the province’s labor laws if it does not declare a strike by 55,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) illegal.
“Ensuring that an illegal strike is not continued is a very important aim of industrial relations, and failing to exercise your discretion to do so would Result in the very clear ban on strike activity, which is a key feature of the Labor Party.” party, significantly undermine the Relations Act,” said Ferina Merji.
Thousands of education workers, including teaching assistants, custodians and librarians, quit their jobs Friday to protest the government’s passing legislation banning strikes and imposing a four-year contract.
The progressive Conservative government included the notwithstanding clause in its education worker legislation, saying it intended to use it to guard against constitutional challenges.
“We have no tolerance for disruption. We made it very clear in the summer through the plan to catch up, children must stay in school,” Education Secretary Stephen Lecce told CBC News on Saturday.
Lecce has said the government had no choice but to move forward with its legislation to avert a strike and keep students in class after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning in recent years.
VIEW | Lecce says the province will continue to use every tool to open schools:
Laura Walton, chair of CUPE Ontario’s School Board Council of Unions, said the Ontario government was negotiating “in bad faith.”
“The fact that they were working on this legislation before a strike announcement was made should tell the people of Ontario everything you need to know,” Walton told CBC News on Saturday.
“They had no intention of ever negotiating in good faith. In fact, it’s really… the definition of bad to come to a table and say if you don’t withdraw your right to strike, we’re not going to negotiate… believe negotiate.”
Province equates work stoppage with strike
CUPE argues that the workers’ action is a political protest rather than a strike.
It argued in its board files that the purpose of its members’ action is “to express opposition through political protest against the” [province’s] decision to violate the constitutionally protected right of workers to bargain collectively and to strike.”
“No matter what label someone puts on the activity, Mr. Chairman, it’s a work stoppage. And a work stoppage, by any other name, still amounts to a work stoppage and therefore a strike, period,” Merji told the hearing. .
Merji said the government’s behavior at the negotiating table is irrelevant in an illegal strike request, and is instead the subject of a complaint about unfair labor practices.
Merji said such a strike is illegal because the Labor Relations Act prohibits work stoppages while contracts are in effect, arguing that CUPE leadership deliberately advised education staff to participate in an illegal strike.
VIEW | CUPE representative responds to comments from the Minister of Education:
She played video of CUPE-Ontario president Fred Hahn saying the union would provide workers with the same benefits as any strike.
Merji also shared a video of Laura Walton, chair of CUPE Ontario’s School Board Council of Unions, who compared the strike to a strike planned for 2019. At the time, CUPE and the government reached a last-minute deal the day before the workers arrived. were placed to go on strike completely.
CUPE had originally requested that both Lecce and Andrew Davis, the assistant deputy secretary, be called to testify before the council.
Board chairman Brian O’Byrne ruled that Lecce is exempt from testifying due to parliamentary privileges, but said Davis could be called to testify.
But after hours of delay, a CUPE attorney said he would not engage Davis to provide evidence because documents the union also wanted to submit as evidence could not be made available.
What are CUPE employees protesting against?
CUPE workers walked out on Friday in what they called the start of an indefinite strike in protest at the government’s passing of the controversial legislation. Members of other unions, including the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and Unifor, also joined the picketers.
The Teachers’ Federation of British Columbia announced Saturday afternoon it voted to send $1 million so CUPE members “don’t have to back out”.
The government’s new law will impose fines for violating the strike ban of up to $4,000 per worker per day — which could go up to $220 million for all 55,000 workers — and up to $500,000 per day for the union. CUPE has said it will fight the fines, but will also pay if it has to.
Solidarity protest starts Saturday
Education workers and supporters took over Yonge and Dundas in Toronto and other busy intersections in the province on Saturday to show solidarity with CUPE amid the ongoing labor action.
“We know that everyone has the right to bargain,” Ned Sharp, a teacher from the York Region District School Board, said at the meeting.
The strike has caused the vast majority of school boards in the province to halt face-to-face learning, with many saying they will switch to fully online learning next week if the labor campaign continues.
The school closures have also impacted childcare arrangements for thousands of parents across Ontario, with many scrambling to find last-minute caregivers or leave work to help their children learn remotely.
While students should be in the classroom, she says they should only be in school with the appropriate support provided by CUPE educators.
“There isn’t enough money for them, there isn’t enough time for them, there isn’t enough of them in one of our schools. And we need to make that change because teachers can’t work without our educators with us.”
Impact of strike on parents, students
Traci Clarke, a parent, volunteer and member of the Ottawa Special Education Advisory Committee, agrees.
She has a 19-year-old son on the autism spectrum and says that when schools closed, she gave him the choice of either learning online or going to the nearest picket line with his father, a teaching assistant.
“He’s done learning online. He never wants to do it again,” Clarke said.
VIEW | Ontario parents on the impact of the teachers’ strike on their families:
Heather Donovan, a parent of a 12-year-old diagnosed with dyslexia, says her son also struggles with online learning.
While she understands why the workers are on strike, she says she wonders if everything has been done to prevent it.
“Everyone is having a hard time and this is the last thing our kids need right now,” Donovan said.
“I just feel like this was such a drastic decision and there weren’t enough other options.”