By Laura Steiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Honking horns echoed throughout the Main & Ontario St area of Milton Friday morning in support of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). They were protesting the provincial government’s decision to force a labour agreement on education workers.
CUPE started bargaining with the Ford Government June 3, 2022. “We have been urging the Ford government to reach a deal with us for 150 days, but so far they keep saying ‘no’ even though they could easily afford to say yes given their $2.1 billion surplus,” President of CUPE Ontario Boards Council of Unions (OSCBU) Laura Walton said. The surplus was announced in September.
The main sticking point is a wage increase. Education Assistants (EA)’s are making an average of $39,000/year. The union is asking for an 11.7% wage increase. “The 11.7% that Lecce thinks we’re asking for doesn’t make up for the cost of living increase we haven’t received over the last decade,” Juliette Smith said. Smith works as an EA in the Halton board. The provincial government passed Bill 124 in 2019 capping public sector wage increases at 1%/ year. “1% on our wage, is not the same as 1% on a teacher’s wage,” Smith added. Smith loves her job. “We do it because we love the children. These are their weakest moments, and I don’t think the public sees that.”
October 3, 2022 CUPE announced 96% of its members voted in favour of a strike vote. The province’s final offer came on October 31. It offered an increase of 2.5% for employees earning under $43,000, along with an increase in benefits contributions, and changes to sick leave, and short-term disability leave.
Lecce Uses the Notwithstanding Clause
Education Minister Stephen Lecce used the Notwithstanding clause, a tool that overrides sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a period of four years. In this case, it affects sections 2 (fundamental freedoms) 7 (legal rights) and 15 (Equality Rights) of the Canadian Charter of Rights. “All along, we made a promise to do whatever it takes to keep kids in class. We will keep that promise,” he said in remarks yesterday.
Upon passage of the legislation Thursday Lecce also filed a submission to the Ontario Labour Relations Board declaring CUPE’s strike action illegal. “Nothing matters more right now than getting all students back in the classroom and we will use every tool available to do so,” The government could fine strikers individually, or the union itself.
The decision to use this clause has sent a chill through organized labour. Arnie DeVaan sits on a Retired workers council executive for UNIFOR and attended in support of CUPE. “Organized labour is together on this. I don’t believe there is one union that is not supporting this,” he said.
Milton parents were also out to support the workers. Leah Micallef walked with her husband, and her 6-year-old son. “Last year the EA’s were super helpful, but an integral part of the team. And the Custodians, and Admin staff are all integral to keeping schools safe. We just all feel they deserve to earn a living wage,” she said.
Halton District School Board has unveiled a plan that alternates between in-person, and remote learning, should the strike continue into next week. “Going to virtual learning is not ideal for us, but more than that we support workers’ rights. Our family will figure it out.” Micallef added. Halton Catholic District School Board closed schools today and will monitor the situation, updating parents via email or through their website, and Twitter