Education workers ending walkout as Ontario pledges to repeal law

Under pressure, Premier Doug Ford says he will repeal law forcing 55,000 workers to accept contract in Canadian province.

Members of CUPE education workers and other supporters amass at Queens Park
Education workers and their supporters mass at the Ontario provincial legislature in Toronto to protest on Friday, a day after the province passed legislation imposing a contract on the union [Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images]

A union representing about 55,000 striking education workers in Canada’s most populous province has said it will end its walkout after Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to rescind contentious back-to-work legislation if the union agreed to end the strike.

Laura Walton, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE) Ontario School Board Council of Unions, said on Monday that workers “will be collapsing [their] protest sites starting tomorrow”.

“We hope that this gesture is met with the same good faith by this government in a new proposal at the bargaining table as soon as possible,” Walton said during a news conference, adding that workers would be back in schools on Tuesday morning.

Custodians, maintenance and library workers, secretaries and other education support staff walked off the job on Friday after the Ontario government passed legislation forcing them to accept a contract and banning them from striking.

Ontario invoked a contentious section of Canada’s constitution known as the notwithstanding clause to temporarily suspend sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and pre-empt court challenges to the legislation, known as Bill 28.

That spurred widespread condemnation and anger with civil rights groups saying “everyone’s rights are at stake.”

Ford on Monday said his right-wing government would be willing to rescind the legislation and its use of the notwithstanding clause “but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike and letting our kids back into their classroom”.

“Let’s get back to the table, and let’s negotiate a fair deal,” the premier told reporters.

Ford and Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce later welcomed CUPE’s decision to end its strike and resume talks.

“In return, at the earliest opportunity, we will revoke Bill 28 in its entirety and be at the table so that kids can return to the classroom after two difficult years,” Lecce said in a statement.

The four-year contract imposed on workers included raises of 1.5 to 2.5 percent – far lower than the union demanded to meet the surging cost of living.

Members of CUPE education workers and other supporters amass at Queens Park to protest
More than seven in 10 Ontarians said they wanted the Ford government to negotiate a fair deal to end the strike, according to a recent poll [Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images]

The legislation also included a daily $2,968 (4,000-Canadian-dollar) fine for striking workers, which the union has said it will fight or pay if needed.

“Let’s not forget why this all started,” Walton said. “This started because the Ford government didn’t want to pay workers, the lowest-paid education workers in this province, a living wage.”

The workers’ protest has drawn support across Canada, and local media outlets reported that CUPE was considering launching a general strike next weekend, piling pressure on Ford to relaunch negotiations with the union.

An Abacus Data poll released on Sunday found that 62 percent of Ontarians blamed the province for the strike, which has forced the closure of hundreds of schools to in-person learning.

More than seven in 10 residents said they wanted the Ford government to negotiate a fair deal to end the strike, the poll found, while 78 percent said the average salary for Ontario education workers – $28,900 (39,000 Canadian dollars), according to CUPE – was not enough.

“These workers … deserve a deal that has been freely negotiated, that keeps them out of poverty and allows them to meet the needs of their students,” Walton said.

The Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in Canada, said all of its schools would reopen to in-person learning on Tuesday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies