Why we must support Ontario education workers

By Meena Brisard, HEU Secretary-Business Manager
Tell Ford Don't Be a Bully

The fight currently led by education workers in Ontario is a fight that all workers should support.

This week, Doug Ford’s Ontario government enacted Bill 28, which unilaterally imposed contracts on more than 55,000 CUPE employees and made it illegal for these employees to strike. Rather than engage in good faith bargaining and work collaboratively with unions to build and improve the education system, the Ford government is choosing to use a blunt instrument to side-step the Charter rights of workers.

Bill 28 takes away these workers’ constitutional right to strike, and it imposes fines of up to $4,000 per day, per worker, and up to $500,000 per day for CUPE, for any contraventions of the legislation.

But we’ve seen this kind of hostile attack on workers by right-wing provincial governments before. HEU members remember very well the lengths Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals went through in 2002 to dismantle workers’ bargaining power.

Among other things, they tore up the common collective agreement for health care workers, and contracted out thousands of public sector jobs through Bill 29, devastating the lives of the lowest paid workers in health care.

Our union and many others fought back against this attack and eventually won. We challenged Campbell’s Bill 29 all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2007, the highest court ruled in our favour, and issued a landmark decision declaring that collective bargaining is a "constitutional right" protected by the Charter for workers across the country.

Known as the Health Services decision, this win was the cornerstone of subsequent major legal victories for labour. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada win by the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour established the right to strike as a charter-protected right. Then in 2016, the BC Teachers’ Federation won a significant court challenge, winning the right to negotiate class size and composition.

When provincial governments trample on workers’ rights rather than bargain in good faith, they lose.

But what’s different in the fight that CUPE workers are facing today is that, in enacting Bill 28, the Ford government is also invoking the notwithstanding clause, protecting itself against court challenges, notwithstanding that it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – specifically the constitutionally protected right to strike and right to engage in collective bargaining.

Through Bill 28, the Ontario government has usurped the Charter rights of these unionized workers by imposing a contract, which overrides their constitutional right to collective bargaining.

This is a significant and detrimental use of the notwithstanding clause. It is an attack on, and huge step back for, the advancements made by the labour movement. Beyond what this mean for workers, this Bill could have ripple effects on other constitutionally protected rights across the nation.

This must be a wake-up call for all activists and unionists across Canada to mobilize against government violation of constitutionally protected rights. We must stand up and support our CUPE friends to protect the democratic and constitutional rights of all Canadian workers to engage in the collective bargaining process including exercising the right to strike.