Canada school workers stood ground, won wage raise

By Beverly Bernardo
January 2, 2023
Canadian Union of Public Employees march in Ontario Nov. 4 wins support in strike that defeated provincial government anti-union law.
CUPE Ontario FacebookCanadian Union of Public Employees march in Ontario Nov. 4 wins support in strike that defeated provincial government anti-union law.

TORONTO — Ontario school workers, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, voted to approve a new contract, union President Laura Walton announced Dec. 5.  The vote followed the victory won by CUPE members when they defied provincial Premier Douglas Ford’s attempt to ban them from striking. Backed by parents and other unions, they walked out for two days, winning support and leading union rallies across Ontario.

Ford was forced to repeal Bill 28 enacted to make it illegal for public workers to strike, and to scrap his efforts to punish workers by fining the union and individual strikers for each day they went out.

Under the new contract all school workers will receive a yearly 1 Canadian dollar an hour (74 cents) wage raise.

“We stood our ground,” Walton told the press. “We stared down this government. Our fight showed the power working people have, an example to be taken up in Canada and across the world.”

“Ford thought he could do anything, but we showed him he was wrong,” school bus driver Jamal Hajahmed told the Militant. Workers have faced a virtual pay freeze since 2019 when the Ford government passed Bill 124 capping pay hikes for 780,000 public workers at 1% a year. As prices soared, real wages were cut. A coalition of more than 40 unions had been fighting to overturn the law, including Ontario’s four teachers’ federations and its hospital workers.

In the wake of the school workers’ victory against Bill 28, the Ontario Superior Court ruled Bill 124 unconstitutional Nov. 29, saying it violated freedom of association protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by interfering with collective bargaining. The provincial government says it will appeal the ruling.

The school workers’ refusal to buckle to Ford’s drive to break their strike puts all unionists in a stronger position to stand up to boss and government attacks.

Their new contract was ratified by 73% voting for and 27% against, with 76% of the union’s 55,000 members casting a ballot. The union represents early childhood educators, custodians and maintenance workers, educational assistants, secretaries and other office staff, social workers, lunchroom supervisors and library technicians.

The contract “is the best deal we’ve had in years because we fought for it,” education assistant Michelle Campbell told a CUPE news conference.

Some workers thought more could have been won. The union had sought an increase of CA$3.25 an hour in wages and increased staffing levels. The pay raise is “not enough,” Hajahmed said. “I never expected to see rent as high as it is today. I make $3,000 and rent is $2,500.

“They need to hire more education assistants and caretakers too. Having 30 students in a class is too many,” he said.

“I need more money. The price of cooking oil has gone up to $13 from $2.99 for a 3-liter bottle,” Theodora Asare, an education assistant for children with special needs, told the Militant.“To make ends meet, I work a second job at a group home for people with special needs during spring, summer and Christmas breaks.”

Asare said she appreciated “the solidarity the CUPE workers received from rail workers in the U.S. who are facing the same type of situation we were and sent our union a solidarity message.”