CUPE calls Ontario’s proposed legislation ‘bullying tactic,’ vows to strike until ‘real deal’ made

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (October 31, 2022, 4:12 PM EDT) -- The Ontario government has introduced the Keeping Students in Class Act, which, if passed, would “ensure students remain in the classroom” by establishing a “four-year collective agreement” with Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) “education workers across the province.” However, CUPE has made it clear that it will strike despite the Act, describing the proposed legislation as a “bullying tactic.”

In a statement, released Oct. 31, Stephen Lecce, minister of education, said the government is “disappointed that CUPE is refusing to compromise on their demand for a nearly 50 per cent increase in compensation, representing a price tag close to $19-billion if extended across the sector.”

The minister acknowledged that CUPE intends to strike, which he said puts “their own self-interest ahead of Ontario’s nearly two million children, who deserve to stay in class learning.”

According to a government release, the Keeping Students in Class Act would, “establish a four-year collective agreement for Ontario’s 55,000 education workers that ensures stability for students and includes:

  • A salary increase of 2.5 per cent (increased from an initial offer of two per cent) for employees with the top end of their salary/wage grids below $43,000 annually (increased from $40,000) and 1.5 per cent (increased from 1.25 per cent) for employees with the top end of their salary/wage grids above that amount for each year of the contract;
  • An increase in benefits contributions resulting in a $6,120 annual employer contribution per employee by Aug. 31, 2026;
  • Funding through the Support for Students Fund, estimated to support up to 875 teachers and between 1,600 and 1,830 education workers;
  • Modification to sick leave and short-term disability leave plan provisions that protect stability of student learning, while maintaining generous pension, benefits and sick leave programs;
  • $4.5 million in funding for apprenticeship training; and
  • An extension of modified job security provisions.”

“To protect against legal challenges, which may create destabilizing uncertainty for students and families, this Act would provide that it shall operate notwithstanding sections 2, 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and despite the Human Rights Code,” the release added.

In response, CUPE released a statement noting it “will not take the Ford Conservatives’ bully tactics.”

“Lecce wants to convince kids and parents and education workers that he has, in his words, no other choice but to introduce this legislation but that’s simply not true,” said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario.

Lecce, he added, “has a choice to offer an adequate salary increase that compensates for over a decade of wage cuts” and to “invest in education to ensure adequate staffing levels from the classrooms to the libraries.”

“He has a choice to continue negotiations without having the threat of ramming through a contract full of concessions and wage cuts over the heads of frontline workers,” Hahn said in a statement.

According to a CUPE release, the “final offer” of the government to education workers “consists of a wage increase of 2.5 per cent for employees earning less than $25.95/hr, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more; inadequate protections against job cuts; no paid prep time for education workers who work directly with students; a cut to the sick leave/short-term disability plan; and more.”

“Lecce calls this offer a generous one,” added Hahn, noting that “half per cent wage increase to an already-insulting offer isn’t generous.”

“An additional 200 bucks in the pockets of workers earning 39K isn’t generous. It wouldn’t even be generous to accept our proposal — it would be necessary, reasonable, and affordable. It’s simply what’s needed in our schools,” he stressed.

Hahn noted that CUPE has “three more days of bargaining left despite the tabling of this legislation and imposing this totally inadequate contract.”

“[The Ford government] might think they can just rely on this bully tactic of a legislation. But we’ve been in mass meetings the last week with education workers — frontline workers who’ve resoundingly expressed their commitment to ensuring good wages, work conditions, and educational environments. On Friday, regardless of what this government does, we will be engaging in province-wide political protest where no CUPE education worker will be on the job until we get a real deal. Our members will not have their rights legislated away. Now’s the time to stand up for ourselves and public education and that’s just what we’re going to do,” he concluded.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) issued a release calling the Act a “full-frontal attack on basic labour freedoms in Ontario.”

“The legislation pulls the plug on bargaining with education workers and imposes an unreasonable four-year contract,” the release stressed.

OFL president, Patty Coates, said “today is a dark day for Ontario workers. By introducing this legislation before education workers have even exercised their Charter-protected right to strike, the Ford government is attempting to short-circuit the bargaining process and strip workers of a fundamental freedom.”

“Doug Ford and his government are once again telling workers across the province that their rights don’t matter,” she added in a statement.

The OFL release also noted that the “in addition to violating workers’ constitutional right to strike, the Keeping Students in Class Act enforces a concessionary contract on Ontario’s 55,000 education workers — the lowest paid workers in the education system — many of whom are women workers and workers of colour.”

“The bill unilaterally imposes woefully low wage increases — well below inflation — on low-income employees who have previously been subjected to 3 years of 1 per cent increases under Bill 124; inadequate protections against job cuts; no paid prep time for education workers who work directly with students; a cut to the sick leave/short-term disability plan; and many other imposed terms which penalize employees. All told the imposed compensation changes amount to a mere $200 in the pockets of workers earning on average $39,000 and facing 7 per cent inflation,” the release explained.

The release stressed that “Ford’s Conservative government plans to ram through this legislation that tramples on workers’ rights by once again invoking the notwithstanding clause; this time, the Keeping Students in Class Act overrides Ontario workers’ constitutional rights for up to five years.”

“This clause allows the government to override almost any section of the Charter through a vote of the legislature. The Ford government’s use of these extraordinary powers is a clear attack on the democratic rights of workers, according to the OFL. The Ford Conservatives are the first Canadian government to use the notwithstanding clause to override constitutionally protected labour rights,” the release added.

Coates emphasized that the “labour movement calls on the government to withdraw this legislation, get back to the bargaining table, and negotiate in good faith. Education workers deserve a fair deal, not a contract imposed on them by law.”

The Keeping Students in Class Act is an attack on every union member, every worker, every student, and every parent in this province. If we allow Doug Ford to get away with it, all other workers will face the same threat: contracts imposed by law instead of free collective bargaining. We won’t let it happen. We will defend the right to fight for our schools, good jobs, decent wages, and a better life,” she added.

According to the release, the OFL will hold “an emergency rally on November 1, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. at the Ministry of Labour headquarters, 400 University Ave., Toronto.”

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