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The democratic right to strike is at stake as confrontation escalates between 55,000 Ontario school support workers and the Conservative government of Doug Ford. Rallies, protests, and walk-outs are the order of the day as provincial Tories use bully tactics to perpetuate poverty wages. Ford is resorting to the use of the ‘notwithstanding clause’ to over ride the constitution. Canadian Union of Public Employees national president Mark Hancock called that step “unbelievable.”

“This is an amazingly brutal approach by Premier Ford and his government.”

The Toronto District School Board announced Monday night that, like the Toronto District Catholic School Board, it would close its schools on Friday to in-person learning — although allow child care services to remain open, with shortened hours.

Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions — which represents the education workers in most boards across the province — said the government is “using the nuclear option because a group of workers has gotten extremely strong.”

Talks between the two sides resumed briefly Sunday after Education Minister Stephen Lecce requested they return to the table, where the government presented its final offer.

Mediated talks were set to resume Tuesday through Thursday, but Lecce appeared uninterested as the government proceeded with the Keeping Students in Class Act.

Paul Cavalluzzo, a constitutional and labour lawyer, called the government’s move “shocking — because what we have now is draconian, anti-democratic legislation, which is imposing a contract without the employees having the right to arbitrate” which the Supreme Court established in 2015.

“I know that the notwithstanding clause, which they’re obviously relying on, was never intended to be used in such situations,” he said.

Cavalluzzo said the government has “absolutely no respect for the rule of law…they’re almost making Ontario into a Charter-free zone while they govern. And the problem is the more you use the notwithstanding clause, the less respect people will have for it.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Premier Ford for resorting to the seldom-used provision.

The Ford government threatened on Sunday it would table the no strike law and impose a contract should the 55,000 custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants and clerical staff walk off the job. Earlier that day, CUPE had given the required five days’ notice of strike action.

The government’s final offer to CUPE increased its wage offer slightly, to 2.5 per cent each year for those earning less than $43,000 and 1.5 per cent for those earning more. That was an increase from the original offer of two per cent for those earning less than $40,000 and 1.25 per cent for all others. Benefits and pensions would remain largely unchanged. The official rate of inflation is 6.9 percent, having surpassed 8 per cent recently.

CUPE, which represents support staff in all boards across Greater Toronto, is seeking roughly 11 per cent in annual wage increases. Its members are typically the lowest paid in schools, averaging $39,000 a year — including part-time workers. An educational assistant in the Kawartha Pine Ridge board makes almost $35,000 a year, whereas a maintenance-trades worker in Hamilton earns more than $56,500.

The union is also seeking increased pay for overtime, as well as more support staff and guaranteed staffing and service levels for students in schools.

In solidarity with CUPE, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario called off its talks with the government on Monday.

The Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty imposed contracts, freezing pay in 2015, but was later found to have violated education union bargaining rights and had to pay more than $210 million to unions for the breach.

The “notwithstanding clause” is a constitutional provision giving governments power to override some Charter rights that conflict with a legislative agenda.

The Ford government used it for the first time in the province’s history — after a judge ruled that legislation limiting election spending by third-party groups was unconstitutional.

As CUPE members appear ready to defy an unjust law, the question is: What will the rest of the labour movement, including teachers’ unions, and the working class as a whole do?

The Tories are pressing their luck. They won a big majority of the seats in the Legislature with only 41 per cent of the votes cast in a super low 44 per cent voter turnout on June 2, 2022. Ford is ripe for repudiation, if only labour, including private sector unions, the NDP and allied forces would launch a general strike — not just for one day, but for as long as it takes to Dump Thug Ford.

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