The Ontario government pre-emptively ordered the province’s lowest-paid education workers back to classrooms and school hallways Monday, introducing legislation that would impose a below-inflation pay rise and fines for stop-work action on employees before a planned Friday strike.

The move marks a sharp escalation after months of slow-burn talks between the province and the 55,000 (mostly female) educational assistants, early childhood educators, school librarians and janitorial staff represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

The Ontario Federation of Labour described the proposed legislation as a “full-frontal attack on basic labour freedoms” and said it would hold an emergency rally outside the Labour Ministry on Toronto's University Avenue at 5 p.m. Tuesday in response.

Employees represented by CUPE have said they won't show up for work on Friday anyway without a fair deal, which appears out of reach.

“No one wants to strike, least of all the lowest-paid education workers, who can barely pay our bills,” said Laura Walton, an educational assistant from Belleville and president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“Still, we need a significant wage increase, and we deserve it.”

The union has asked Premier Doug Ford’s government for around $3 an hour more after a decade of suppressed wages and a recent spike in inflation that equals a significant and real pay cut. Instead, staff whose average salary is $39,000 a year could face fines if they withdraw their labour at the end of the week.

If passed, the Keeping Students in Class Act would impose a pay rise of between $0.40 to $0.67 per hour, up from an initial offer of $0.33 to $0.53 an hour, which Walton described as “still a significantly long way off from what these workers need to get out of poverty.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he was “left with no choice but to take immediate action today” to keep students in class after receiving the legally required five days' notice of intent to strike on Sunday.

The Ontario government ordered the province’s lowest-paid education workers back to work Monday, setting up a legislative and operational standoff ahead of a planned Friday strike.

The president of CUPE Ontario, Fred Hahn, said Lecce did and still does have a choice.

“He has a choice to offer an adequate salary increase that compensates for over a decade of wage cuts,” Hahn said. “He has a choice to invest in education to ensure adequate staffing levels from the classrooms to the libraries. And he has a choice to continue negotiations without having the threat of ramming through a contract full of concessions and wage cuts over the heads of front-line workers.”

The proposed legislation would allow the government to impose its contract on the unionized workforce, invoking the notwithstanding clause in order to sidestep procedural avenues to appeal or legal challenges of its dismissal of collective labour.

"The notwithstanding clause was never meant to be used in contract negotiations, or as a casual tool to disrupt basic human rights safeguarded in our charter,” the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in response. “This misuse and the flagrant disregard for individual rights is wrong."

The showdown could also ensnare the province’s teachers unions, which are at varying stages of their own contract negotiations with the Progressive Conservative government. One of them, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, cut its talks short after the legislation was introduced.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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I will contribute to any genuine fund supporting the strikers.

I think the only thing that will stop Ford's appalling ongoing damages against Ontario, and its citizens, would be a general strike, across the province.

In response to a protest appeal in my inbox today from the Ontario Parent Action Network, I wrote that this has to be more than a rally for education workers: "JUST AS IMPORTANTLY, parents, union allies and everyone else who cares about democracy in this province must rally against Ford's unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to permit his otherwise blatantly illegal pre-emptive move against the right to strike.
Opposition parties should walk out of provincial governing sessions in protest demanding withdrawal of the notwithstanding clause use.
Sister unions should do rolling walkouts until the notwithstanding clause use is removed.
Activists of all persuasions need to rally to demand that this outrageous overreach and threat to the country's Charter stop.
The federal and other provincial and municipal governments must protest this abuse of power as a major threat to the democratic rule of law.
Everyone must highlight this direct attack on "everyday" "ordinary" "essential" workers as showing the true colours of this anti-worker government."
Whatever the outcome of these current actions, ongoing full-throated opposition to the increased flagrant rogue use of the Charter's notwithstanding clause by provincial governments must continue until these abuses are put back into the do-not-use box where they belong.

This is how fascism works. Doug Ford was smart enough to recognize the general Canadian public was not with the convoy enough not to 'go to war' with the Federal Liberals, as did the crazies in other parts of our country.

But his political acumen, or slyness, led to another majority government......and very early on, we're being treated to how that works for today's conservatives. Break Labour.........treat the front line workers who stood by us during the lockdown as the poorly paid peasantry they are, refuse to testify as to the Ontario governments role in the convoy lockdowns.......and in general, operate as autocrats.

I can't imagine living on $39,000 a year........especially now with inflation as high as it is. But Doug thinks he can pit parents (and their desire for babysitting education) against teachers and educational assistants.

If he gets away with it, we'll see in Canada, what the real values of our conservative governments are. Conservatives value money.....not children. They value private enterprise, not public workers.

If we keep dancing with them, the future is going to get bleaker for most of us. I'll stand with my colleagues in Education....using the not with standing clause to cheat educational workers out of a fair raise is fascistic behavior. It has no place anywhere in Canada.

Agreed, and remember how these conservatives gave notice early on by refusing to attend election debates? Our common decency, fair-mindedness, and basic respect for our democracy and "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition" as a part of that has meant trying to bring them along with us as if they haven't fundamentally changed in this entirely unacceptable way. Emboldened now, they're taking the mile and are on a roll in solidarity with the full-on thuggery of Republicans.
Because at this point it's like we're all enablers cowering in fear, listening to the CUPE people yesterday was a reminder of what is quite simply our innate superiority as human beings. This dispute is no minor kerfluffle; it's truly existential and the first time in my life, (I am 70) that I have been able to start to imagine "going to war." Putin's invasion has cemented that and distilled the ultimate parameters here; the right wing is Putin and the rest of us are Zalensky.
If CUPE education workers (and education is SO key to all this) don't reach an agreement on this last-ditch effort today, and walk out despite the government ruling, we are entering this new territory.
Interesting to recall that the Charter only passed because of allowing the notwithstanding clause introduced by Alberta and Quebec so ironically, and now typically, the rabble on the right use OUR very "progressiveness" i.e.our tolerance and an inclination to compromise and collaborate AGAINST us, even imitating OUR language. So in contemplating their relative strength against us, we should remember that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery i.e. they're jealous of us. So we should be throwing our weight around FAR more, something Trudeau is uniquely suited for I think because they've personally and repeatedly slagged his father as well as him, but also who exactly was it that brought in the now definitive "Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms" again? Which means we need to start rallying around him and that "costly coalition" that Boilievre is braying about now.

Doug Ford is a rotten bastard. Shame on Ontarians for being fooled into voting for him a second time. "Fool me twice . . ."