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Top questions answered about Ontario’s back-to-work legislation

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The Ontario government tabled legislation on Monday that was supposed to prevent an education worker strike from occurring on Friday.

The 82-page bill, when passed, would establish a four-year collective agreement with approximately 55,000 school support staff under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)—including custodians, early childhood educators, education assistants and administrative staff—and make it illegal to go on strike.

But the legislation will not stop entirely to prevent job action. Here’s what you need to know:

What is this legislation?

The legislation uses the notwithstanding clause to override elements of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to prevent education workers from striking. It also imposes a four-year contract deal on employees 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.

The government hopes to pass the legislation on Thursday, one day before CUPE could legally strike under the normal bargaining process.

Will it prevent a strike?

Not immediately. CUPE said Monday it is planning a province-wide walkout on Friday regardless of the legislation.

“That means no CUPE education workers will be at work. Instead we will be taking a stand for public education for ourselves and for our future,” CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn said.

It’s unclear if the protest will continue the following week. Individuals who fail to comply with the new legislation could be fined up to $4,000 a day.

If all members go on strike, they could face collective fines of about $220 million in a single day.

The union itself could face a fine of up to $500,000.

Will schools close?

A number of school board’s have indicated they would close schools if support staff decide to walk off the job Friday.

This includes the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the Halton District School Board, Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington (PVNC) Catholic District School Board and Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

The Toronto District School Board has yet to confirm what this means for students.

CUPE has also said it is reaching out to other education unions to discuss the possibility of them joining the picket lines.

Can the union fight the legislation?

No. The use of the notwithstanding clause makes it nearly impossible to fight the bill in court, which is how education workers succeeded in appealing a decision by a previous Liberal government to freeze wages and limit employees’ abilities to strike.

At the time, a judge ruled that the government “"substantially interfered with meaningful collective bargaining" and ordered them to pay more than $100 million to the unions.

Despite this, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters Monday he believes his government’s use of the notwithstanding clause was constitutional.

What does this mean for other education unions in the bargaining process?

At least one other education workers union decided Monday to step away from the bargaining table as a result of the legislation. In a statement, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) said the bill “undermines the free and fair collective bargaining process.”

“On this of all days, ETFO could not, in good conscience, sit across the table from the government, and so we ended negotiations for the day,” the said.

All other major unions representing Ontario teachers have indicated their disappointment with the government’s actions.

It is still unclear how this will impact their bargaining process.

Lecce seemed unconcerned when asked if the legislation could disrupt bargaining in other sectors, saying the bill is “very specific” to education support workers.

“In the meantime, we'll continue to negotiate with other sector partners and our teachers really to get a voluntary deal that is fair for their workers and respects the good work they do, but most especially keeps these kids in school,” he said.

What happens next?

While CUPE says it has another offer to bring to the table, the government has essentially said it isn’t interested in listening anymore.

“We have made clear to the union. They had an opportunity to present to the government a counter proposal,” he said. “We gave them that chance. They could have said to us, you know, give us a day. They said ‘no, we are going on strike Friday.’”

Lecce said that he presented CUPE with the updated deal and told them to rescind its strike notice. When they did not do so, the government decided to invoke the notwithstanding clause.

“We're going to move forward, pass this legislation and keep kids in class.”

Unions are required to give five days’ notice before going on strike in Ontario. CUPE gave its strike notice on Sunday.

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