Cartoon of Doug Ford poking a bees nest that says Ontario Labour on it
Illustration by Theo Moudakis/Toronto Star
FEATURE

Standing Up to Ford, Standing Up for Workers

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How ETFO Geared Up to Fight Bill 28
Heather Aggus and Carla Pereira

When the Ford government came for one of us – our Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education worker colleagues – by enacting Bill 28, it came for all of us in the labour community. We stood united to defend and protect workers from an outrageous attack on their democratic rights, and we won.

Our collective power inspired a historic moment in labour history. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) played a key role in mobilizing solidarity to push back against the Ford government’s draconian legislation, which was designed to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and strip CUPE members of their constitutionally protected right to engage in free and fair collective bargaining.

Here is a timeline of ETFO’s work in the lead-up to the repeal of Bill 28:

Sunday, October 30:

Central negotiations between CUPE, school board bargaining agencies and the government reach impasse. CUPE issues notice of its intention to engage in a full withdrawal of services strike on Friday, November 4.

Monday, October 31:

In response to CUPE’s strike notice, the Ford government’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce tables the Keeping Students in Class Act 2022 (Bill 28) in the Ontario Legislature. Bill 28 curbs CUPE education workers’ rights by:

  • making any form of strike action illegal. On conviction, individual CUPE members would be liable for a fine of up to $4,000 per strike day; the union would be liable for a fine of up to $500,000 per strike day;
  • bypassing free and fair collective bargaining for CUPE education workers by imposing an unconstitutional central agreement. Among other things, the imposed agreement reduces CUPE education workers’ sick leave entitlements and cuts their benefit funding;
  • including “notwithstanding” language that overrides the Charter rights of CUPE education workers, as well as their human rights as defined in Ontario’s Human Rights Code; and
  • preventing the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), arbitrators and other tribunals from reaching decisions that may go against any aspect of the government’s legislation.

The broader labour community is deeply concerned about the precedent that is being set with the introduction of Bill 28, including its significant negative impact on the democratic and collective bargaining rights of all workers in Ontario.

Many outside of labour also express concerns about Bill 28. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association condemns the Ford government’s disregard of the Charter: “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. This misuse and the flagrant disregard for individual rights is wrong, and it is dangerous to our constitutional democracy … If the government can use the clause now without consequence, it won’t hesitate to do so again.”

On the same day Bill 28 is introduced in the Legislature, ETFO is scheduled to be at the central bargaining table with the government and the Council of Trustees’ Associations. In protest, ETFO decides to end talks for the day. ETFO President Karen Brown tells government representatives at the table: “Since the beginning of the 2022 bargaining round, ETFO has approached negotiations in a constructive and respectful manner.

I want to be frank with you to say that the events of the last 24 hours make it clear your government is not approaching bargaining in the same way. Given what will be unfolding this afternoon, I want to let you know that we are not prepared to negotiate with you today. Being here on the same day and time that the government introduces draconian legislation that imposes a collective agreement on our CUPE colleagues is unacceptable to us. Consequently, we will not meet with you today. The action of this government goes against everything we believe in. It is an affront to constitutional rights and disregards the principles of democracy.”

Tuesday, November 1:

An emergency meeting of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Executive Board is held. As members of the board, ETFO representatives are present and ask how they can support the democratic and collective bargaining rights of CUPE education workers against the onslaught of Bill 28.

Wednesday, November 2:

Despite the terms within the Ford government’s oppressive legislation, CUPE declares it will strike until further notice, starting on November 4.

The NDP’s Interim Leader Peter Tabuns is ejected from the Legislature after accusing Premier Doug Ford and his ministers of lying about the damage the PC government is doing to the education system. Fifteen other NDP MPPs are also ejected from the Legislature due to their outbursts in protest of Bill 28.

Thursday, November 3:

Bill 28 passes in the Legislature. Ford government MPPs loudly applaud its passage as union leaders, labour activists and education workers are removed from the gallery for protesting the bill. Premier Ford is absent for the vote.

Free and fair collective bargaining for all workers, a right protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is now at risk. Concerns about Bill 28 are being expressed by many outside of labour. York University Law Professor David J. Doorey calls the bill “among the most draconian pieces of labour legislation in the modern era in Canada.” Organizations representing Ontario’s principals and vice-principals release a statement characterizing Bill 28 as “an unprecedented violation of the principles of collective bargaining…this sets an inequitable and oppressive precedent for all future bargaining in which the government may take part with any employee group, in any sector.”

The Ministry of Education files an application with the OLRB to rule that the CUPE strike, set for the next day, is illegal.

This would allow the government to impose heavy fines on CUPE and CUPE members as outlined in Bill 28.

Friday, November 4 to Sunday, November 6:

The Ministry of Education’s OLRB application to have CUPE’s strike action declared illegal is heard. The hearing stretches from early morning to late night, ending Sunday afternoon.

ETFO seeks intervenor status with the OLRB on the Ministry’s application. The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO), the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) file separate applications seeking intervenor status.

ETFO legal counsel Howard Goldblatt argues that the government’s actions will likely form the basis of its tactics with all of the education affiliates, which means ETFO has a direct interest in the outcome of the OLRB hearing and should be allowed to make submissions.

The OLRB denies ETFO, AEFO, OECTA and OSSTF’s applications for intervenor status. Over the course of the next three days, Steven Barrett of Goldblatt Partners LLP, retained by CUPE National in response to the OLRB application, argues that the union is not engaged in an illegal strike, but a political protest. Barrett points out that “to call [CUPE’s political protest] a mid-contract withdrawal of services, as if this was a collective agreement freely negotiated, is a fundamental absurdity.”

Friday, November 4:

CUPE education worker members engage in a full withdrawal of services. ETFO members support CUPE on picket lines in large numbers before and after school, and during lunch breaks. ETFO members show up with flags, signs, snacks and steadfast solidarity.

A large crowd also descends on Queen’s Park, including hundreds of workers representing ETFO, other teacher unions and other unions. ETFO President Karen Brown inspires a chant from the crowd by singing, “Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights!”

That evening, ETFO’s Provincial Executive confirms its support for a general strike in protest of Bill 28 alongside all Ontario unions.

Saturday, November 5:

CUPE members, ETFO members and other members of the education and labour communities demonstrate across the province on “Solidarity Saturday.”

The OFL holds a special meeting. The Executive Board of the OFL, as well as the heads of public and private sector unions from across the province – including from ETFO – attend. They discuss the importance of the labour community coming together to support CUPE and the rest of the education sector. This sentiment is strongly supported by those in attendance.

A motion is passed by the OFL Executive Board to hold a rally on November 12, followed by a mass Ontario-wide walkout on November 14 to protest Bill 28.

Each union follows its own process to confirm support.

Later in the day: ETFO’s Provincial Executive meets to discuss how the Federation will lend its support to the OFL action on November 14. The Executive determines to commence an all-member vote approving a political protest, as required by ETFO’s Constitution.

Prior to voting on any job action, information meetings with ETFO members must be held. The decision is made to begin the process of completing these steps over the next week in order to be ready for the November 14 province-wide, multi-union political protest.

Sunday, November 6:

ETFO prepares to join the OFL’s November 12 rally and November 14 political protest. Picket signs are ordered, a meeting of local presidents is set for the next morning and arrangements begin to conduct information meetings and an all-member online vote as soon as possible. ETFO members will be notified about the political protest vote on the morning of Monday, November 7.

Abacus Data releases polling information that shows the public is on CUPE’s side and blames the government for mishandling negotiations. According to their polling, 62% of respondents blamed the government for any disruptions to learning – the rate rises to 72% among parents with young children. Polling also demonstrated that 48% were in support of other unions walking off the job in protest of Bill 28.

During the evening of November 6, the press learns and reports about the OFL’s province-wide walkout planned for November 14.

Monday, November 7:

CUPE National is scheduled to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. The national president of CUPE will be joined by provincial and national labour leaders, including ETFO President Karen Brown, to talk about the growing fight against the Ford government’s Bill 28. However, the Ford government pre-empts this with a press conference at 9 a.m. At this press conference, Premier Ford, joined by Minister Lecce, says his government will rescind Bill 28 if CUPE agrees to return to work and to the bargaining table.

Victory:

CUPE National delays its press conference by two hours while it waits for written confirmation from the Ford government that it will repeal Bill 28 in its entirety.

At a noon press conference, more than 30 union leaders from both public and private sectors take the stage. ETFO President Karen Brown is onstage and speaks on behalf of the Federation’s 83,000 members:

“We stand together, united in our solidarity and fuelled by the collective power of our members – the workers of Ontario. Let there be no doubt that we will not stand by and watch the government strip away our constitutionally protected rights because they want to avoid the inconvenience of negotiations.

The draconian legislation the Ford government passed to impose collective agreements on CUPE, and remove their Charter rights to free and fair collective bargaining and to strike, was an unprecedented attack on collective bargaining rights, the likes of which have not been seen in Canadian history.

Rest assured, we will hold Premier Ford to his word in rescinding Bill 28. We stand in steadfast solidarity with CUPE.”

The government announces Bill 28 will be repealed on November 14, when they return to Legislature.

Wednesday, November 9:

The Ford government withdraws its application at the OLRB to have CUPE’s November 4 job action declared illegal.

Monday, November 14:

Bill 35, the Keeping Students in Class Repeal Act, passes in the Legislature. It not only repeals Bill 28, but states that it is “deemed for all purposes never to have been in force.” It is dated retroactively to November 3, the day Bill 28 was passed. In doing this, it is as if Bill 28 never existed.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who tabled Bill 28 on October 31, is absent for the vote to repeal the bill.

Following its repeal, ETFO President Karen Brown observes that Bill 28 “was an unprecedented attack on collective bargaining rights, the likes of which had not been seen in Ontario’s history. Today, we celebrate the repeal of this oppressive bill, which was accomplished through the courage of CUPE education workers and the collective power of workers and families across Ontario.”

Leading the Way:

ETFO was a leading union in the broad labour support for a general strike in Ontario to protest Bill 28. That support proved key to the Ford government’s decision to back down and repeal the bill.

ETFO members, standing shoulder to shoulder with other union members, with families and with the community, put so much pressure on Premier Ford that he and his government couldn’t ignore us. Together, we forced Premier Ford’s hand, leading to the historic repeal of Bill 28.

When we take action together, we win.

By standing up and showing that the bullying of union members will not be tolerated, ETFO continues central bargaining with a sense of power that cannot be ignored by the Ford government.

ETFO is prepared to sit down at the bargaining table to ‘get it done,’ but not at the expense of educators and students in this province. ETFO members expect to be part of a bargaining process that values students, respects educators and provides much needed funding for Ontario’s public schools.

We are prepared to fight for our schools and our future.

Heather Aggus and Carla Pereira are members of ETFO executive staff.