Faced with broad opposition and a possible escalation of union pushback strategies, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced he will repeal Bill 28, which overrode the bargaining rights of CUPE school workers.
After receiving notice in writing Nov. 7 that the Ontario government would repeal the legislation passed Nov. 3, CUPE said it would suspend its strike action and that its 55,000 education workers employed as custodians, educational assistants and support staff would return to work the next day.
The workers went on strike Nov. 4 in defiance of the back-to-work legislation and stayed off the job Nov. 7.
Several construction unions had added their voices to the protests. Stakeholders in the sector stated after Ford’s announcement Nov. 7 that they hoped the premier and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce had learned a lesson.
“It’s a message to all of the governments across Canada that if you’re going to interfere with fundamental rights of workers, you’re going to have a reaction,” said International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 793 business manager Mike Gallagher. “Workers were coming together and we were going to fight like hell to make sure that nobody lost their right to fair, free collective bargaining and their rights to strike.”
Victoria Mancinelli, director of strategic partnerships for LIUNA’s Ontario Provincial District Council, added, “We’re really happy to see the government step up and do what’s right here. Repealing Bill 28 is the best decision. Collective bargaining should be settled at the table, and LIUNA is a strong believer in collective bargaining rights and protecting those rights that have been earned in the labour movement.”
Both LIUNA and the IUOE had posted statements slamming the back-to-work legislation, including pointed criticism of the government’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to prevent the union from challenging the legislation in court as a violation of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms.
The Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario and IBEW also posted statements.
“It is important to let the Ontario government know when we believe it is out of line. Using the notwithstanding clause to strip our province’s education workers of their Charter right to freely bargain a collective agreement and to, instead, impose a contract is morally wrong,” stated James Barry, executive secretary treasurer of the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario.
Marc Arsenault, business manager for the Building Trades, called the Ford’s government’s change of heart a “welcome development.”
“The speedy mobilization of the organized labour collective, both private and public sector, over the past few days demonstrated that the integrity of the collective bargaining process needs to be preserved,” Arsenault said.
The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) also objected, issuing a statement arguing, “Regardless of one’s perspective on CUPE tactics or rhetoric in these negotiations, there is no denying that your government, irrespective of intention, has overreacted to the threat of job action.”
Bill 28 imposed annual wage hikes of 2.5 per cent for workers earning less than $43,000 per year and 1.5 per cent for those earning more. Violation of the back-to-work order could have resulted in a fine of $4,000 a day for workers and up to $500,000 a day for CUPE.
LIUNA, the IUOE and IBEW all endorsed the Ford government heading into last spring’s election.
“I certainly thought that the Ford government was not going to be overly ideological and that they were going to take a middle-of-the road, moderate approach, more like the Bill Davis government, where there’s lots of consultation that goes on, especially around the Labour Relations Act,” said Gallagher.
His union also supports the infrastructure spending plans of the government and the efforts of Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton to boost the skilled trades, he said.
Gallagher said it was important for the building trades to take a stand on Bill 28 “because of the possible impact the government’s attitude could have on our own members down the road.”
Mancinelli said when it endorsed the Ford campaign last spring it reserved the right to criticize the government for policies it opposed, such as Bill 124 and now Bill 28. The government has made significant investments in infrastructure and handled the skilled trades portfolio with aplomb, earning LIUNA’s support, she said, but it’s “not fair to say that just because we endorsed the Ford government and because we work well with the Ford government, that we cannot say that this is wrong because we endorsed them.
“We have a responsibility to hold government accountable, and that’s what we did.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.