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As CUPE members and supporters continue to protest, Ontario government says it won’t return to the negotiating table


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As CUPE members and supporters continue to protest, Ontario government says it won’t return to the negotiating table

The Ontario government says it has no plans to resume talks with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), as parents and students brace for schools to remain closed on Monday.

CUPE also insisted it wouldn’t return to bargaining unless the government withdraws the legislation that, on Thursday, stripped the school support workers of their right to strike.

“CUPE had their chance,” said Caitlin Clark, director of communications for Minister of Education Stephen Lecce.

“The deal is done, and we will not be going back to the table,” she said a day after 55,000 Ontario education support workers walked off the job prompting boards across the province to close schools to students on Friday.

Meanwhile, a second day of hearings continued into Saturday evening at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, where the Ford government is pushing the independent tribunal to deem Friday’s walkout illegal.

The government’s lawyer argued the board had no choice but to declare the work stoppage an “indefinite, unlawful strike.”

But CUPE’s lawyers countered that the work stoppage wasn’t a strike but a political protest against the province’s “decision to trample upon employees’ constitutionally protected right to collectively bargain and right to strike.”

If the government’s application is successful, it could levy daily fines of up to $4,000 against striking CUPE workers and fine the union up to $500,000 for every day the action continues — a penalty that could top $220 million a day.

On Saturday evening CUPE said it was unclear if the board would render a decision in time to avert another day of school closures Monday. However, the government said it expected to hear sooner.

Labour negotiations between the provincial government and CUPE broke down Thursday.

That same day, the government pushed through controversial legislation that overrode Charter rights by prohibiting the union from striking, and imposed a contract on the workers, who include custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants and library technicians.

“Bill 28 is not a voluntarily negotiated agreement,” CUPE’s lawyer told the labour board.

All opposition parties at Queen’s Park have vehemently opposed the legislation called, Keeping Students in Class Act, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned it for trampling on people’s fundamental rights.

On Saturday, Lecce told CBC that his government had no choice but to invoke the notwithstanding clause, claiming that the union was determined to strike.

“We don’t have tolerance for disruption,” he said. “We made it very clear in the summer … kids have to stay in school. We committed to the people of Ontario normal, stable, enjoyable schools.”

Public and private sector unions have also rallied to CUPE’s cause with the B.C. Federation of Teachers pledging $1 million in support. “CUPE members in Ontario, your fight is our fight,” said social media posts by the teachers’ union.

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Although CUPE originally pushed for an 11 per cent yearly raise for school workers, CUPE’s school boards bargaining unit put forward a revised offer on Tuesday which reduced its wage demand to about six per cent, sources told the Star.

The government has raised its offer of two per cent to up to 2.5 annually over four years for the lowest-paid union members, and from 1.25 to 1.5 for those earning more than $43,000.

“So many front-line education workers are parents, never mind single moms, and just about every parent in Ontario is a worker. Our fight is for everyone, all workers whose fundamental rights are being bulldozed by Doug Ford and Conservative MPPs who laughed at us when they rammed through their unconstitutional bill on Thursday,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“CUPE education workers will be joining thousands of workers from a multitude of unions and parents at protest events throughout the province until this government repeals Bill 28 and we get a freely negotiated collective agreement that invests in the supports students need,” she said.

Throngs of CUPE members, parents and supporters shut down the intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto on Saturday — a sea of pink CUPE flags waving all around.

The demonstration was one of several solidarity protests the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) organized around the province on Saturday. It was the second day of protests after more than 100 rallies took place across the province on Friday, according to CUPE.

More demonstrations are planned for next week.

“Workers will take to the streets, take to the courts, take to the bargaining tables to push back against this,” Janice Folks-Dawson, a longtime CUPE activist and the OFL’s executive vice president, told the crowd.

The government’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause and impose a contract on support workers was a step too far, according to three teachers from the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic School District Board, who came downtown to show support for their colleagues.

“If we don’t stand up now,” Page Kennedy told the Star, “we’re all at risk.”

After more than two years of learning disruptions, this latest turmoil has left school boards scrambling to transition their students back to remote learning, with expectations that support staff won’t return on Monday.

Celia Ambeault, a Toronto mother of three, brought two of her kids along with her to the demonstration.

“I really don’t want to go back to online school,” she said. “And I think that doing so is kind of crossing a virtual picket line.”

She said it will be very difficult to accommodate her children learning remotely once again, and she places the blame squarely on the Ford government.

At one point, her partner, Sean Kershaw, turned to Ambeault’s young daughter: “This is all so you can go back to school.”

With files from Tess Kalinowski, Kristin Rushowy, Robert Benzie, Rob Ferguson and The Canadian Press

Ben Mussett is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: bmussett@thestar.ca

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