Ontario government to repeal Bill 128 amid unprecedented support for education workers

TORONTO—Premier Doug Ford said he is willing to rescind the legislation that caused Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers to walk off the job last week. In a news conference Monday, he offered to rescind Section 33 (not withstanding clause) as a “gesture of good faith” if CUPE agreed to stop its strike, return to the classroom and return to the bargaining table. Less than two hours later, union leaders confirmed that Premier Ford had agreed to repeal Bill 128 in its entirety.

Premier Ford referred to CUPE’s strike action notice as “an unprecedented situation that requires unprecedented solutions,” which was why the legislation was introduced. He said the legislation was meant to protect the right of kids to stay in class to learn and prepare for the future. The government used the notwithstanding clause to ensure that happened, he said.

“I’ve always respected the right of workers to fair and free bargaining but CUPE refused to take strike action off the table, even when those strikes were illegal,” Premier Ford said. “I want to be clear. We didn’t make the decision to introduce legislation lightly. We were left with no choice. Our desire has always been, and remains, to negotiate in good faith to land agreements with education partners.”

Mark Hancock, national president of CUPE, was joined onstage by national and provincial labour leaders at CUPE’s news conference, representing millions of private and public sector workers from across the country. He called it an unprecedented gathering of labour leaders in response to the unprecedented attack on the rights of all Canadians.

“Bill 28 was a direct threat to workers’ rights and to the Charter rights of all Canadians,” Mr. Hancock said. “It invoked the notwithstanding clause to undermine some of our most fundamental rights.”

“We’ve received and can confirm that the Premier will introduce and support legislation that will repeal Bill 28 in its entirety,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) to loud cheers. The bill will be repealed in a manner that ensures the legislation will be deemed to have never been a law in Ontario in the first place.

As a gesture of good faith, “CUPE OSBCU will be collapsing our protest sites starting tomorrow,” said Ms. Walton. “We hope this gesture is met in the same good faith by the government in a new proposal at the bargaining table as soon as possible.”

Over the past three months, the Ontario government has been at the table with CUPE and in discussions with all education unions, with a clear goal to keep students in class, said Premier Ford. “We put forward a fair and reasonable offer, an offer that provides the largest increase in compensation for education workers in over a decade. It protects the most generous benefits and pension plan in the entire country along with 131 paid sick days. All we ask for is that they remove their threat to strike so kids can stay in class.”

Premier Ford said CUPE had demanded a nearly 12 percent annual raise that, when combined with all other benefits, meant a nearly 50 percent increase in compensation. “When CUPE didn’t’ get what they were demanding, they gave notice they were going on strike,” he said.

“What we were asking for and what we continue to be asking for is a flat rate increase,” Ms. Walton said. “We have never asked for a percentage, because percentage increases further the disparity between low wage earners and high wage earners, which just further drives inequity in our province. It needs to stop.”

“Let’s not forget why this all started,” she said. “This started because the Ford government didn’t want to pay workers, the lowest paid education workers in this province, a living wage. This started because we know the reality in our schools. They’re anything but normal and stable due to constant underfunding and lack of investments in the direct services students need to be safe and successful. This started because education workers have been overlooked, underappreciated and legislated into poverty. This started because co-workers, the vast majority of whom are women, we realized our power and we decided to stand up and fight back.”

Mr. Hancock said Premier Ford has talked to the NDP and they’ve committed to bringing their MPPs back to the legislature, but a date has not been set. CUPE OSBCU workers will be returning to work Tuesday.