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Unions react to use of notwithstanding clause to impose CUPE contract

MPPs were up early Tuesday morning to debate a bill that would impose a four-year contract on education support workers, but if the intent was to lower the temperature in the dispute, it appears to have had the opposite effect.

Not only has the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing 55,000 education support workers, vowed to go ahead with Friday's planned walkout, but labour organizations across the province have also expressed support.

It is still unclear if other unions intend to join CUPE on the picket line, but the Ontario Federation of Labour is holding an emergency rally on Tuesday outside the Ministry of Labour's headquarters in Toronto.

It called the Ford government's Keeping Students in Class Act a "full-frontal attack on basic labour freedoms."

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association said it was "shameful."

"We urge Premier Doug Ford to immediately abandon this draconian legislation, and to commit to working collaboratively to achieve fair agreements that support all educators and students," said Barb Dobrowolski, OECTA's President.

In a letter posted to Twitter, Unifor National President Lana Payne wrote to the President of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions her members would "support your organizing efforts and your activism in any way that we can. On picket lines, in the streets, in schools, and online."

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, still negotiating its contract with the Ontario government, called the bill "a flagrant abuse of government power."

Karen Littlewood, the President of OSSTF, used the word "heavy-handed" to describe it.

MyNewsToday.ca has reached out to all of the above organizations and is waiting for a response. However, the reaction online from labour groups has been both swift and unanimous.

After introducing the legislation on Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters his government had "no tolerance" for disruptions at Ontario schools following the pandemic.

"I'm appealing on a moral basis to the workers who I know love these kids, that they will do the right thing, show up, make a difference and continue to enrich the lives of the child," he said.

Ontario Federation of Labour President Patty Coates doesn't buy it. Pointing out that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrines Canadians' right to collective bargaining, she urged the Ontario government to return to the bargaining table immediately.

The government plans to use the notwithstanding clause in the Charter. If the bill passes, it would be the first time during a labour dispute in Canadian history.

"This clause allows the government to override almost any section of the Charter through a vote of the legislature," said Coates. "The Keeping Students in Class Act overrides Ontario workers' constitutional rights for up to five years."

Coates strongly criticized the government's contract as inadequate. She said it offers "inadequate protections against job cuts, no paid prep time for education workers who work directly with students, a cut to the sick leave and short-term disability plan, and many other imposed terms which penalize employees. All told, the imposed compensation changes amount to a mere $200 in the pockets of workers earning on average $39,000 and facing seven per cent inflation."

Payne, meanwhile, echoed Coates's concerns.

"Today's legislation, which aims to revoke education workers' right to strike, is clearly positioned to put a chill on all public sector negotiations at a time when workers across the country are standing up against rising costs and demanding higher wages and fairness at work," she said. "$39,000 per year is not enough."

Opposition MPs accused the Ford government of sitting on billions of dollars while education workers go without.

The bill is expected to pass second reading on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also weighed in on the labour dispute. The Globe and Mail quoted Trudeau on Tuesday as saying Ford's decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause was "wrong".

"The suspension of people’s rights is something that you should only do in the most exceptional circumstances, and I really hope that all politicians call out the overuse of the notwithstanding clause to suspend people’s rights and freedoms," said Trudeau.

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