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School back Tuesday as Doug Ford’s government and CUPE agree to return to bargaining


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School back Tuesday as Doug Ford’s government and CUPE agree to return to bargaining

Premier Doug Ford “blinked” and the Canadian Union of Public Employees is ending its province-wide strike, meaning hundreds of thousands of students will be back in classrooms Tuesday.

After the premier pledged to the union in writing Monday that he would repeal his controversial bill overriding Charter rights and return to the bargaining table, CUPE called off the walkout by 55,000 school support staff.

Mediated talks are set to resume Tuesday morning.

“We won. The bill is gone,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, told a news conference at the Sheraton where she shared a stage with more than two dozen union leaders gathered from across the country to fight the legislation.

The union’s move came three hours after Ford offered what he called a “massive olive branch” Monday to “rescind” Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, that had only passed last Thursday.

“We … can confirm that the premier will introduce and support legislation that will repeal Bill 28 in its entirety,” said Walton, whose union represents custodians, office staff, educational assistants and early childhood educators.

“This bill will be repealed in a manner that ensures the legislation will deem that it was never a law in Ontario in the first place,” said Walton, heralding Ford’s capitulation.

“As a gesture of good faith … (we) will be collapsing our protest sites starting tomorrow.”

That means hundreds of thousands of students and their parents should see things return to normal on Tuesday.

Ford, who made his announcement beside Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said he was willing to backtrack on the bill that bans strikes and forces a contract on CUPE, invoking the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to do so.

His offer was meant to turn down the heat as workers, who hit picket lines Friday, remained off the job for a second day, shutting down hundreds of schools in many boards of education.

It also came against the backdrop of a threatened general strike next Monday and as thousands of workers protested in front of Queen’s Park.

It is unclear when negotiations will resume between the two sides. Should talks falter, the union is required to give five days notice before starting another strike.

Mark Hancock, national president of CUPE, said the premier’s concession proved the power of the labour movement, and united it.

“They took on the Ford government and the government blinked,” said Hancock, one of several leaders to note both public and private sector unions were galvanized by Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to override their Charter rights.

“You can be sure that other Conservative premiers were watching this very closely,” said Lana Payne, president of Unifor, whose members include autoworkers and employees at the Toronto Star.

The labour coalition against the legislation included construction unions that endorsed Ford in the June 2 election.

Ford said “as a gesture of good faith” he was willing to repeal Bill 28, “but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike and letting our kids back into their classrooms.”

Students, he added, “don’t deserve to be caught in the middle of these negotiations … for the sake of the students, CUPE, please accept this offer. Take strike action off the table and let our kids back in class.”

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Once that happens, “we sit down at the table and we negotiate a fair deal, folks. Eventually this has to come to an end. The only people CUPE is hurting are the kids right now.”

The premier also expressed openness to giving the lowest-paid CUPE members — who earn less than $43,000 a year — a bigger raise than the 2.5 per cent per year on offer.

After the union’s announcement, Lecce confirmed “CUPE has agreed to withdraw their strike action and come back to the negotiating table.”

“In return, at the earliest opportunity, we will revoke Bill 28 in its entirety and be at the table so that kids can return to the classroom after two difficult years,” he said.

The legislature, which is not sitting this week, will repeal the bill when MPPs return to Queen’s Park next Monday, the premier’s office said.

Ford said his government didn’t make the decision to introduce back-to-work legislation and impose contracts lightly.

The plan to repeal the bill renders moot a pending ruling from the province’s labour board on the strike by support staff.

The government had asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to rule that the strike is illegal. A hearing began Thursday evening and continued throughout the weekend, wrapping up Sunday afternoon.

Last Thursday, the government passed the bill that pre-emptively banned CUPE’s strike and imposed a four-year contract on school staff.

The government had maintained the legislation was needed to keep students in classrooms after two-and-a-half years of disruption because of the pandemic.

“We want a deal that’s fair for students, fair for workers, fair for parents and fair for taxpayers. And we know we can get there, as stewards of taxpayers dollars,” Ford said.

“We also have a responsibility to the entire province. A deal with CUPE has massive impacts on broader public service salaries, as well as the government’s ability to invest in services like health care, transit, education and hospital infrastructure alongside other vital public services.”

But the legislation has galvanized the labour movement, including unions that threw their support behind the Progressive Conservatives during the last election.

The two sides were far apart when talks broke down — the union seeking about six per cent in annual wage increases, the government offering up to 2.5 per cent a year over four years.

Under Bill 28, CUPE members faced individual fines of $4,000 daily and the union $500,000, a tab of $220 million per day.

CUPE received some donations from other unions, but had pledged to fight any fines.

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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