CUPE strike: Why workers, politicians are frustrated and how long a protest could last

                      

As members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) get ready to walk off the job Friday and the contract talks between Ontario's government and thousands of education works breaks down further—devolving into an ugly legal battle, parents and public are worried and confused about what's in store in the coming days.

Even after Education Minister Stephen Lecce tabled the "Keeping Students in School Act" legislation on Monday to block the union from striking, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn promised that school support staff still intend to walk off the job on Friday as part of a day of protest.

As a result, many school boards said they would close for in-person learning on Friday if the walkout went ahead.

Here's a look at the current dispute, why CUPE is going on strike, and what's in store for students and parents.

Why is CUPE going on strike?

A day after the Jun. 2 provincial election this year, frontline education workers from CUPE served notice to bargain with the Ontario government and the Council of Trustees' Associations (CTA).

CUPE, which represents 55,000 educational assistants, early childhood educators, custodians, librarians, and office staff in many boards across the province were exchanging offers with the province over the summer to reach a fair collective agreement that would avert classroom upheaval in the Fall.

The education workers are asking Ontario's government for an 11.7 per cent annual raise, as well as overtime at twice the regular pay rate, 30 minutes of paid prep time per day for educational assistants and early childhood educators, an increase in benefits and professional development for all workers.

After negotiations broke down on Oct. 17, the union announce on its Ontario School Board Council of Unions account on Twitter that a conciliator has issued what's known as a "no board report," which CUPE had requested on Oct. 7, saying the talks were at an impasse.

The report set a 17-day countdown—up until Nov. 3—toward the union being in a legal strike position.

On Sunday afternoon, an emergency mediated session between CUPE and the ministry of education was called after the union announced they would strike on Friday if a deal is not reached with the province.

After the meeting, Lecce said the province set forward a new offer, but CUPE did not accept it.

Only a day after CUPE gave their formal notice to strike on Friday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce preventively tabled legislation on Monday afternoon which will “terminate any on-going strike” by CUPE and instead impose a new four-year collective agreement on the approximately 55,000 members represented by the union.

Lecce said the government will do everything possible to ensure kids remain in class—especially after the past two years of disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CUPE has called the back-to-school legislation illegal and has vowed to fight the notwithstanding clause.

“On Friday, regardless of what this legislation says our members will be engaging in a province-wide protest. That means no CUPE education workers will be at work. Instead we will be taking a stand for public education for ourselves and for our future,” said CUPE president Fred Hahn in a press release.

“Our union and others have been effective in challenging governments in the courts and we won but all too late for workers. Enough is enough. We may in fact challenge this in court but we are first going to challenge it in our communities. We are not going to allow our rights to be legislated away.”

The latest offer from the province is a four-year deal that would cap annual raises for members making less than $43,000 at 2.5 per cent and provide 1.5 per cent raises for everyone else.

What happens if CUPE members go on strike on Friday?

The Ontario government is using the notwithstanding clause to impose a new contract on education workers from CUPE.

Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives tabled a bill Monday that invokes the clause to block employees from striking or negotiating wages any further, binding 50,000 education workers — including librarians, custodians and early childhood educators — to a four-year contract.

The notwithstanding clause — or Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — gives provincial legislatures or Parliament the ability, through the passage of a law, to override certain portions of the charter for a five-year term.

This bill allows for fines to be issued against any individual or bargaining agency that either participates in a strike or “authorizes or threaten to call or authorize a strike.”

Those fines cap out at $4,000 for individuals. However, steeper fines of up to $500,000 could be levelled against the union itself under the legislation.

“There are consequences and we have shared those with our members but I think there is also consequences for not fighting,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU) shared with CTV News. “At what point as people in Ontario do we stand up and say enough is enough?”

Speaking with reporters, Hahn said that the government's intention to not only introduce back-to-work legislation but also impose a collective agreement is a "monstrous overreach” using the “heaviest hammer imaginable.”

How much do CUPE employees make?

CUPE members currently earn an average of $39,000 a year, though that figure includes part-time workers. An 11.7 per cent raise would give them $3.25 extra an hour, or about $4,800 extra per year.

Although CUPE is asking for a much higher pay raise than most workers, or even other unions, are seeking this year, it says it's trying to make up for years of stagnant pay.

From 2012 to 2021, the education workers' wages increased about 8.5 per cent. Over the same period, inflation in Ontario rose 17.8 per cent, meaning the workers took a massive pay cut over that period.

Which school boards are affected or have decided to shut down due to the CUPE strike?

Several school boards have issued notices and said they would close for in-person learning on Friday if the walk out went ahead. Here's a list of all the boards that announce Friday closures:

The Toronto District School Board, Ottawa Catholic School Board, Waterloo Catholic District School Board, and Halton Catholic District School Board have announced that their schools will be closed on Friday.

The Peel District School Board has announced that all children will be participating in asynchronous learning on Friday and that teachers and remote staff will be available remotely to assist students.

Toronto Catholic District School Board has said in a letter to parents dated Oct. 30 that all of its schools will be forced to close Friday “if” there is a full withdrawal of CUPE services. Thames Valley District School Board has also said in a statement that if there is a full withdrawal of CUPE services, all in-person students will move to independent learning.

The Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board is taking a wait-and-see approach to the looming strike and has not yet said if it will close its schools on Friday.

“We are monitoring the situation and will continue to share information with you as further developments occur through SchoolMessenger, social media and the DPCDSB website,” the board said.

York Region District School Board: The YRDSB hasn’t said if it will close schools on Friday but has suggested that parents and guardians have a backup plan for child care if they do.

As the situation is still unfurling and CUPE is waiting to hear a counter-offer from the government, many more school boards are expected to announce closures. Parents are being asked to monitor the school board's websites and to make arrangements for their children on Friday.

How long will the CUPE strike last?

According to Rich Appiah, a principal at Appiah Law Employment and Labour Counsel in Toronto, the length that a strike can last really depends on the capacity of the union.

"Theoretically, the strike can be indefinite—particularly if the members are getting paid," he told Yahoo News Canada.

"However, if the government legislation passes with the notwithstanding clause, fines can be issued and the strike can be much shorter. So it really depends on whether that legislation passes and how intimidated CUPE members will be by that legislation," he added.

Till now, CUPE has only suggested that the strike would take place on Friday.

"Even if they go to strike on Friday and go back to school on Monday, it doesn't mean that they wouldn't go on strike again. So I don't think it's correct to assume that they would lose leverage if they return to class on Monday," Appiah said.

"On the other hand, we might see job actions in schools like refusals to do certain types of work, work slowdowns, etc.," he added.

Do education workers still get paid while on strike?

Many legal experts say that it really depends on the collective agreement between the education workers and CUPE.

While the employers, i.e. the schools, will not be paying their educational staff, CUPE might pay their workers a "strike pay".

The workers wouldn't get paid by their government employer while they are on strike. Usually, unions build up a strike fund through the dues paid by their members. The strike fund is used, in part, to pay workers while on strike. Union members decide what the pay rates will be.Paul Gray, Assistant Professor in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University

Either way, experts agree that educational staff will face the brunt of it—they could be penalized, apart from losing their base pay, and could even face prosecution for violating the law and going on strike illegally if the notwithstanding clause passes.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the Ontario government was wrong to use the notwithstanding clause to “keep kids in school” and legislate a contract with more than 55,000 education workers.

"I know that collective bargaining negotiations are sometimes difficult, but it has to happen. It has to be done in a respectful, thoughtful way at the bargaining table," he told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday.

The four major teachers' unions are at various stages of bargaining with the government, after their contracts expired Aug. 31.