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Ontario looks to declare education worker walkout illegal as tens of thousand protest

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The provincial government is calling on the Ontario Labour Relations Board to officially declare a Friday walkout by tens of thousands of education workers illegal.

This comes as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representing those workers have said their strike will continue on Monday and beyond until a deal is reached with the Ford government.

Up to 55,000 education workers began picketing at MPPs’ offices, and other government offices and locations across the province today.

LATEST: Ontario's fight against education workers over walkout to continue at labour hearing

Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CP24 on Friday the government made the submission to the labour board a day earlier after the Keeping Students in Class Act was passed.

"We hope to hear back today or tomorrow potentially, on the findings. In the meantime, we're going to be using all the pressures and frankly, all the levers of the legislation to get kids back to school. We've set out a clear expectation to our school boards, use every power, every authority to open as many schools for as many kids as humanly possible," he said.

In the submission, Lecce alleged that CUPE and the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) "called or authorized or threatened to call or authorize an unlawful strike."

In addition, Lecce said union representatives, including President of the CUPE Ontario School Board Council Laura Walton and CUPE Ontario President Fred Hanh, “counselled, procured, supported, authorized, threatened, or encouraged” an unlawful strike.

A labour board hearing got underway on Friday afternoon and decision is expected to be reached sometime on Saturday.

CUPE National President Mark Hancock said the union will fight for their members' rights.

“CUPE’s legal counsel will be there to argue for our members’ right to protest the Ford government’s unconstitutional law, which strips workers of their fundamental rights," Hancock said in a statement Friday.

Meanwhile, Walton said the protest will continue until a deal is reached or if their members decide otherwise.

"We will be out here and we call on Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce. Come talk to us. We're more than willing to talk to you. It's why we serve notice as early as possible 150 days ago, but we are not going to be bullied and we're not going to have our rights taken away," she told CP24 while protesting outside of Lecce's constituency office in King City Friday morning.

Walton added that parents should have a contingency plan for their children in case the strike continues into next week.

Many school boards across the province had no option but to close their schools to in-person learning today and until job action concludes.

A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) told CP24 Friday morning that the board is preparing to transition to remote learning if job action continues next week.

"Well we're saying right now is that if job action does continue into next week, we will be moving as quickly as we can to synchronous live classroom remote learning obviously, as fast as we can. So that's something that obviously we'd like to avoid and make sure that there's an agreement in place before any further impact into next week. But if for some reason it does continue, we'll be making those plans as quickly as possible," Ryan Bird said.

"Today, as you know, we have asynchronous or non-live classroom instruction. It's independent work at home for this one day, but again if it does extend into additional days next week we have to quickly be able to transition," he added.

However, in a memo obtained by CTV News Toronto on Thursday, the Ministry of Education had asked “all school boards to implement contingency plans, where every effort is made to keep schools open for as many children as possible.”

THOUSANDS ATTEND RALLY AT QUEEN'S PARK

One of the largest strike locations was at Toronto's Queen's Park where picketers started arriving around 7 a.m. for a full day of protesting.

Approximately 8-10,000 protesters were seen at the rally and holding CUPE flags and signs that said "No Cuts to Education" and "I support education workers."

 

Ontario education workers strike in front of Queen's Park on Nov. 4, 2022. (Brian Weatherhead/CTV News Toronto)

Many of the protesters said they came out to fight for a better living wage and more support from the government as the cost of living continues to rise in the province.

"We should stand up for our rights and be able to negotiate our freedom...We are only asking for standard of living," a protester who identified himself as Amar told CP24 at Queen's Park.

"I support everyone here. I think it's great that we're all here standing together and I think we should continue until we get what we're deserved," an unidentified protester said.

CUPE education workers protest at Queen's Park on Nov. 4, 2022 as tens of thousands of union members walk off the job. (CTV News Toronto/Brian Weatherhead)

Toronto police warned the public to expect traffic delays in the Queen's Park area today.

Protests were also held outside of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's office in Etobicoke and at Lecce's office in King City.

Ford has not commented publicly on today's walkout and cancelled his planned appearance at the grand opening of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto Friday morning.

TALKS COME TO A STANDSTILL

Workers are walking off the job after contract negotiations with the government concluded Thursday afternoon. The union provided five days notice of a strike on Sunday.

In an effort to keep children in school, the government passed Bill 28, also known as the Keeping Students in Class Act, Thursday afternoon hours after contract negotiations with CUPE ended.

Bill 28, which was initially proposed on Monday, mandates a four-year contract onto the union members and part of that contract includes a 2.5 per cent annual wage increase for individuals making less than $43,000 a year and a 1.5 per cent increase for all other employees.

The bill also includes a daily fine of up to $4,000 for workers who participate in “illegal” job action and the union itself could be hit with a $500,000 fine.

The union has said that it will fight the fines and, if necessary, pay them for members on strike.

On Friday, Unifor and Unifor’s Ontario Regional Council announced it will donate a total of $100,000 to CUPE to help pay for any fines imposed for defying Bill 28.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the government made “a good faith effort” but that the union wouldn’t budge and take their threat of a strike off the table.

“We will use every tool available to send a clear unambiguous message: schools should be open and there's accountability for breaking the law,” Lecce said.

The strike comes after weeks of contract negotiations between CUPE and the provincial government.

CUPE has been arguing for an 11.7 per cent increase in salary for their members, equalling about $3.25 more an hour across the board.

The union said on Thursday that their latest offer was about half of what was originally proposed, which would be a roughly six per cent wage increase.

However, the government said it would not entertain any other proposals unless the threat of a strike is rescinded.

Walton said Lecce and the government are trying to shut down the workers instead of negotiating with them

"I find it interesting that Stephen Lecce is using more effort to strip away the rights of all of these workers. You know, going to the Labor Board. He has done more trying to defeat these workers than he has to protect these workers. He has done more to harm these workers and the services they provide our kids than he has protecting them," she told CP24 while protesting outside of Lecce's constituency office in King City Friday morning.

CUPE Ontario President Fred Hanh called the passage of Bill 28 "draconian" and said workers will continue to fight until they are heard.

"It is unprecedented in Canadian labour history. It not only invokes the notwithstanding clause to remove people's constitutionally protected rights, it sets aside the human rights code, it sets aside huge parts of the Labour Relations Act and that's why I'm so proud to be here today with all of our members. They are the heroes in this story," he told CP24 at Queen's Park on Friday.

The government and CUPE initially started contract negotiations in July, ahead of education workers’ contracts expiring on Aug. 31.

In addition to pay, CUPE members also want 30 minutes of prep time established every day for educational assistants and early childhood educators (ECEs), along with an extra week of paid work before the start of the school year and an increase in benefits.

With files from CTV News Toronto’s Katherine DeClerq

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