The Canadian News

Ontario government, education union testify at labour board as strike action persists



CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto when education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Nov. 4, 2022.MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

An Ontario labour board hearing to determine the legality of a walkout by education support workers was adjourned in the early morning hours on Sunday, as lawyers for the province argued that the strike action was unlawful because a new contract had come into effect.

In its application, the provincial government said it was seeking an “unlawful strike declaration” against CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents the workers. Also named are Laura Walton, OSBCU president, and Fred Hahn, head of CUPE Ontario. The government is seeking an order “directing that any and all unlawful strike activity immediately cease.”

“Ensuring that an unlawful strike is not allowed to continue is a very important labour relations purpose,” government lawyer Ferina Merji said.

The government passed legislation on Thursday that imposed a four-year contract on the union’s members and overruled their right to strike. It also included the notwithstanding clause in the legislation, effectively preventing the union from using the courts to oppose it.

The proceedings before Brian O’Byrne, chair of Ontario Labour Relations Board, or OLRB, started Thursday night and continued on Friday and Saturday before proceedings were adjourned at around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday. The hearing was set to resume at 7 a.m., but it remained unclear when a decision would be released.

Steven Barrett, lawyer for the union, argued on Saturday that the only option left for workers was to protest the government stripping their Charter-protected rights. OSBCU argued in its own submission to the board that the job action that began on Friday is not a strike, but rather a “legitimate political protest” to oppose the government’s “decision to trample upon employees’ constitutionally protected right to collectively bargain and right to strike.”

Earlier on Saturday, Mr. O’Byrne ruled that Education Minister Stephen Lecce would not be called to testify, even though the union’s lawyer had argued for it.

Mr. Lecce has vowed to get the more than one million students across Ontario who were forced to stay home on Friday back in classrooms using “every tool available.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour organized protests across the province on Saturday in support of education workers, including one at Yonge and Dundas square in Toronto.

OSBCU members, who include education assistants, custodians and other support staff, set up picket lines outside politicians’ offices and the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park on Friday. On the south lawn of the legislature, protesters waved placards and shouted “no more cuts” and “we won’t back down.” Some marched around the building, while others danced to music.

Asked on Friday what the union would do if the OLRB rules against it, Ms. Walton did not indicate next steps.

“We will need to see,” she said outside the legislature. She added that workers have called for the protest to continue until the government offers a better deal.

The union faces hefty fines for its actions under the legislation, known as Bill 28: $4,000 a day for each worker who walks out, with a $500,000-a-day penalty for the union.

Many schools – including in Toronto, York and Peel – were closed Friday as the union defied the government and walked out.

On Friday, thousands of education support workers across Ontario walked off the job, setting up picket lines outside Queen’s Park and politicians’ offices.

The Toronto District School Board is among several boards that have said they will remain closed Monday if union members don’t return to work. The boards have said these workers provide critical daily services such as lunchroom supervision, support in kindergarten classes, and safety and security on school grounds.

In a memo to school boards, the government said it wants them to make “every effort” to keep schools open, and that if there are health and safety concerns, the boards must make a “speedy transition” to remote learning.

Not all school boards were closed on Friday. Some, including the Waterloo Region District School Board, said none of their employees are members of OSBCU, meaning their classrooms aren’t facing disruptions.

The Halton District School Board, meanwhile, said it would alternate between in-person and remote learning for its elementary schools if the union’s job action continues into the coming week. The union represents custodial staff in its elementary and secondary schools. The board said that secondary schools would remain open every day because under its local contract, high schools are permitted to use contract custodial staff.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board announced late Friday it would be closing schools and moving to online learning Monday if the job action persists, after initially saying schools would remain open because they didn’t have many employees walking off the job.

The collective agreement imposed on OSBCU by the government’s legislation includes 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent hikes for those earning more. Both raises are far below what the union is demanding.

Mr. Lecce said the legislation was needed to keep children in classes after their learning was disrupted during the pandemic, and by pre-pandemic labour strife.

The government’s use of the notwithstanding clause has led to widespread criticism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media on Friday that he spoke with national union leaders about Ontario’s “inappropriate pre-emptive use” of the clause, and that the federal government “stands firmly with our country’s workers.” Ottawa has said it is looking at options for intervening in Ontario’s decision, but it hasn’t provided specifics.

The Ontario government and OSBCU were in talks for much of the past week. Last Sunday, the union had given the required five days’ notice of job action. The union has said the government gave it an “ultimatum” to either withdraw its plan to strike or face back-to-work legislation. The two sides spent the following days holed up in a Toronto hotel with a mediator, in a last-ditch effort to broker a negotiated deal.

Ms. Walton said the government wouldn’t budge on the terms of the contract imposed by its legislation, after rejecting a union counter-offer on Wednesday. That included roughly 6-per-cent annual pay increases for workers, who the union has said are among the lowest paid in the education sector. The union had previously demanded 11.7-per-cent annual wage hikes.

The contracts of all education unions, including teachers, expired at the end of August. This was widely expected to be a difficult round of bargaining. The other unions are still in discussions with the government.

Several other unions have expressed support for OSBCU. Members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario took part in the protests on Friday.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, said it would donate $100,000 to help pay for any fines levied against OSBCU members.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation said on Saturday that it would send $1-million to support OSBCU.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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