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At their fall meeting, the BCTF Representative Assembly (RA) voted unanimously to make a historic gesture of solidarity with CUPE Ontario school support workers in their fight for a fair collective agreement and against back-to-work legislation that overrode their Charter rights.

President Clint Johnston and other Federation leaders had been closely watching events in Ontario and growing increasingly concerned about their implications for the labour movement across Canada. “We saw the urgency of the situation and the great need for solidarity,” he said.

On October 30, after months of fruitless bargaining and a 96.5% strike vote, CUPE issued strike notice on behalf of their 55,000 school support workers. The response from the Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford was swift and vicious. The next day they introduced Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which imposed a contract that would do nothing to lift them from their $39,000 per-year average income. Bill 28 also called for crippling fines of $4,000 per worker, per day of job action, for a potential daily total of $220 million. Most egregious of all, it invoked the notwithstanding clause, which allows Parliament or provincial legislatures to temporarily override Charter rights.

Despite these heavy threats, CUPE members walked out on November 5, and thousands of other Ontarians joined their protests in solidarity. Coincidentally, the BCTF RA was meeting that very day in Victoria. The Executive Committee agreed to bring a motion before the RA to donate $500,000, which Johnston brought to the floor.

“We were in a serendipitous position to respond boldly and quickly,” said Carolyn Howe, Local Representative (LR) from Victoria. “I felt the absolute clarity of everyone in the room that if we let CUPE lose in that moment, we would all lose. The use of the notwithstanding clause to suspend union and Charter rights is a shocking move that could impact human and labour rights across the country.”

Surrey LR Annie Ohana “saw the actions of the Ford government as an existential threat to all workers and to our democracy.” She moved to double the donation to $1 million. Some LRs asked the BCTF Treasurer about the Federation’s financial status, and he assured them that there were more than sufficient funds in the Collective Bargaining Defence Fund.

“When they invoked the notwithstanding clause, it truly became a national issue,” Ohana said. “Solidarity has to involve sacrifice, where we take meaningful action that supports our education colleagues and acknowledges the severe punishments they are taking.”

Ohana described the donation as “an investment for our future and a clear clarion call to our own BC government to defend public education, not destroy it.”

She noted that the Ontario teachers were there for BC teachers. “At our lowest they picked us up, and now, as we approach a ratification vote without a strike, we’re blessed that we can be there for them.”

Indeed, when BC teachers faced unconstitutional contract-stripping, unions across Canada stepped up to help. During the 2014 strike, unions and individuals donated almost $3.4 million to the BCTF collective bargaining and hardship funds. Of that total, $2.36 million came from the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, and the Ontario Elementary Catholic Teachers’ Association.

The strong support from Ontarians and from unions across the country forced the Ontario government to back down the very next day. At a news conference, public- and private-sector union leaders celebrated that “Ford blinked.”

“We can confirm that the premier will introduce and support legislation to repeal Bill 28 in its entirety. It will be deemed that it was never a law in Ontario in the first place,” said Laura Walton, President of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents the CUPE education workers.

“We are so very grateful for the solidarity. Now our goal is to get a fair deal that respects workers, students, and families.”

Howe noted that there’s still a lot of work to do before support workers achieve fairness on the job. “I do wonder what it means for CUPE, when they’re still fighting for a living wage and working for such an intransigent employer as the Ford government,” she said. “But parents and the public get it, about the great value of the work school support staff do, and how important it is that we stand with them.”

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine