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Hundreds protest Ontario's anti-strike legislation outside Queen's Park

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Hundreds gathered in downtown Toronto on Tuesday afternoon to protest against the Ford government's back-to-work legislation that would impose a contract on Ontario's 55,000 education workers and block them from striking.

The "Hands Off Workers' Rights" rally organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) began at 5 p.m. on University Avenue outside the Ministry of Labour before it moved to Queen's Park.

The demonstration is in response to the "Keeping Students in Schools Act," which is being debated at the Ontario legislature. The bill introduced on Monday would avert a planned strike by the Ontario education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which include custodians, librarians, early childhood educators, education assistants, and administrative staff.

It would also impose a four-year contract on education workers that includes a 2.5 per cent increase in salary for those who make less than $43,000 annually, and a 1.5 per cent increase for all other employees. To prevent CUPE from challenging the bill, the government invoked a notwithstanding clause.

Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), says the Ford government has "overplayed" its hands by legislating a collective agreement to prevent them from striking.

"If the intent was just to stop us from striking, there were loads of ways you could have done that. But instead, what they did was go to what is now being called that nuclear option," Walton said in an interview with CP24.

"The notwithstanding clause that interferes with people's charter rights, interferes with people's human rights all so that education workers don't have the ability to strike. It's a little overkill."

Walton says their members do not want to strike, but at the same time, they cannot continue working without a fair agreement.

"It's a very concerning piece of legislation. I really hope they are paying attention, and I hope they understand that these people (at the rally) -- these workers – they're parents too, and they need to listen to them."

Meanwhile, Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, says returning to the bargaining table is the only way to get a new deal.

"We know the way to resolve this issue is not through legislation -- draconian legislation. It is not through deploying a nuclear option, like the notwithstanding clause," Hahn said.

"It is by sitting at the bargaining table and making sure that we can have investments in our schools, that we can actually make sure that workers can keep pace with inflation, and that boards will be able to attract and retain people who are talented and skilled that our students need to succeed."

He added that CUPE is prepared to fight the government until education workers get a fair deal.

The national president of CUPE, Mark Hancock, one of the several leaders who spoke at the rally, says he has never seen a notwithstanding clause invoked in back-to-work legislation before.

"We've seen workers legislated back during the strike. We've seen workers forced to take a collective agreement through legislation, but never have we seen the notwithstanding clause used, which is trampling over workers' rights and our human rights," Hancock said.

"And that's why I'm here today with all these people to send a loud message to this government that is not appropriate. It's not acceptable, and we're not going to take it."

The Ontario government is hoping to get the bill passed before the planned strike on Friday. The union issued a strike notice to school boards earlier this week, notifying them that education workers will walk out on Nov. 4.

Despite legislation, CUPE has said its members will still walk out of their jobs on Friday.

Any member who walks off the job in contravention of the bill could face fines of up to $4,000 per day. The union, meanwhile, could be fined $500,000 a day.

Ontario education workers have been without a contract since Aug. 31.

- With files from CTV News Toronto's Katherine DeClerq

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