n Monday afternoon, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) called an emergency rally in response to the provincial government’s pre-emptive strike-breaking legislation. Within a day, the OFL, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and their broader allies brought around 5,000 people out for the demonstration. The event began Tuesday at 5 p.m. at the Ministry of Labour at 400 University Avenue, followed by a march to Queen’s Park, ending at 7 p.m.
For the first time in Canadian history, a provincial government has used the notwithstanding clause to cancel the constitutionally enshrined right for unionized workers to strike. This “nuclear option” as described by OSBCU president Laura Walton was used several days before a potential strike.
The move caused worry across organized labour on Monday afternoon. Over a dozen different unions were represented at Tuesday’s rally, as well as grassroots organizations, like Justice for Workers, that organize with union and non-union workers alike.
“Unjust laws must be broken,” said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario. This sentiment was echoed by several other speakers and chants. CUPE members have been organizing internally and at work for months while the union prepared financially for an eventual strike. Several speakers said that if organized labour doesn’t make a stand here to defend these rights, the rights of many more workers will be at risk.
“These rights were not given, they were fought for,” said Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. “This government is not just willing to take away the right to strike at the stroke of a pen, they are willing to [punish those] who exercise that right.”
Multiple jobs, food insecurity
Over 50 per cent of OSBCU education workers (including library workers, custodians, tradespeople, safety monitors, nutrition workers, and many other professionals) have to work a second job due to their low pay. Their average salary is $39,000 yearly – considered a poverty wage in some regions. In Toronto, for example, a living wage is $22.08 per hour, which translates to $42,900 a year. Many education workers now rely on food banks to survive.
According to CUPE and OSBCU, over 70 per cent of frontline education workers are women.
Under the previous collective agreement, signed under the stress of the early pandemic and Bill 124, workers agreed to a 1 per cent wage increase per year. This was when inflation was at stable levels. Now, the province is offering wage increases of 2.5 per cent (70 cents per hour) to the lowest-paid workers and 1.5 per cent (42 cents per hour) to the rest. With inflation currently above 8 per cent, the provincial government’s offer will result in a reduction of workers’ real wages year-over-year going forward.
OSBCU proposed an 11.7 per cent ($3.25 per hour) wage increase. According to CUPE National, Ontario’s education workers have seen their real wages decline by 10.7 per cent since 2012.
Legal option removed by government
OSBCU, representing 55,000 education workers across the province, was in negotiations with the provincial government through late October. They had 45,000 of 55,000 workers participate in a recent strike mandate vote.
Over 96 per cent of participating workers voted to authorize a strike. OSBCU workers would be in a legal strike position as of November 3. The Ford government’s strike-breaking legislation quashed this legal option.
The provincial government says it will fine every worker who refuses to go to work up to $4,000 per day in addition to fining their union $500,000. After the announcement on Monday, CUPE said that they would cover members’ fines, which could total tens of millions of dollars within a few days if an agreement is not reached with the province.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), representing 83,000 workers, walked out of negotiations with the province on Monday. “[We] could not, in good conscience, sit across the table from the government, so we ended negotiations for the day,” ETFO stated.
Solidarity pickets will be held across the province beginning Friday, November 3. It is unlikely that strike action will be treated as legal now that the government has tabled strike-breaking legislation.