From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters
School support workers in Ontario, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, ratified a four-year contract on Dec. 6, after weeks of defying both school administrators and provincial politicians. The 55,000 custodians, librarians and educational assistants of CUPE went on strike on Nov. 4, one day after the Ontario Parliament imposed a contract on them at the direction of Premier Doug Ford, with draconian penalties for walking out, expecting that would bully them into submission.
Ford even included a “notwithstanding clause” in the law, designed to make it impossible for courts to nullify it. But workers quickly nullified it. After just two days on the picket line, forcing many schools to close, Ford folded and agreed to repeal the settlement he had railroaded through, and to negotiate a contract.
Support from 20 major unions threatening a general strike over imposed contracts was the solidarity that strikers needed.
Those negotiations did not get serious until CUPE threatened a second strike on Nov. 21. The union warded off the two-tier wage system that the government tried to impose, and instead settled for $1 an hour raises in each year of the four-year contract, meaning that raises for workers in lower-paid job titles would be at a higher percentage increase.
Union demands for added staffing and funding for student services were rejected, leading even the union head Laura Walton to say she considered voting to reject the offer. But the contract was ratified in spite of that, with a 73% vote.
The defiance of school support workers in striking “illegally” will help Ontario teachers in their upcoming negotiations. For the moment, the government is not threatening to legislate contracts for them.