No classes in Lambton despite Education Minister’s plea to keep schools open

Sarnia-Lambton MPP is seen in the Ontario Legislature Friday seeming to gesture to CUPE members, who were shouting shame, to leave the chamber as the legislation which imposes a four-year deal on education workers passed in the legislature. The province used the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to disregard the workers' constitutionally protected right to strike.

Schools in Lambton County will be closed Friday as CUPE workers walk out in protest to Ontario’s back-to-work legislation which is now law.

That’s despite Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s demands all schools to remain open as the 55,000 workers take to the streets.

CUPE and the Conservative government have been on collision course since Sunday. The union issued a five day strike notice to begin Friday. Lecce then introduced preemptive back-to-work legislation in the Ontario legislature saying it was imperative students remain in the classroom after missing so many months of classroom learning in the pandemic.

The move was widely criticized, not just because of the back-to-work legislation, but because the Keeping Students in the Classroom Act used the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to quash the workers’ right to strike. That raised the ire of other education unions and unions which previously endorsed the Conservative government in the June election. LIUNA was one of the Ford supporters urging the government to work out an agreement at the bargaining table.

Money is the central issue in the dispute. CUPE members – custodians, educational assistants, early childhood educators, librarians and some members of administration – are the lowest paid education workers in the province with some earning $39,000 a year. CUPE was first looking for an 11.6 per cent wage increase yearly but submitted an offer for six per cent Thursday according to media reports. It was turned down and the mediator ended talks saying the province and union were too far apart.

Friday, in a boisterous sitting of the Ontario Legislature which saw Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey gesturing to CUPE leaders in the audience to leave the chambers, the Conservative majority passed the legislation even before CUPE walked off the job.

The Act imposes a contract with a 2.5 per cent wage increase for workers making less than $43,000 per year and 1.5 per cent for those making over $43,000.

After the legislation passed, the education ministry told school boards to make every effort to keep schools open. It was also expected teachers would be required to come to work, to deliver online learning as soon as it could be arranged.

But in Lambton, both the public and Catholic board say the doors to all schools will remain closed Friday.

“Important supports for schools would not be in place and the LKDSB will not be able to safely operate our schools. In our schools and across our system, CUPE represents custodians, early childhood educators, educational assistants, secretaries, library and computer technicians and other school-based and central staff members,” says Lambton-Kent public director, John Howitt in a letter to parents.

“Without the in-school support of our CUPE staff, the St. Clair Catholic District School Board cannot ensure learning environments will remain safe and clean for all students and staff.  The board has no option but to close schools to all students” said Scott Johnson, the St. Clair Catholic director of education.

There area signs the now illegal strike won’t just be Friday. “There will be a strike tomorrow for as long as it takes” says CUPE’s Laura Walton Thursday at Queen’s Park after the legislation passes.

That strike will be costly to CUPE members; the legislation imposes fines of $4,000 per day per worker if they walk off the job. The union will be fined $500,000.

“The fines can come and we will look after it,” Walton told reporters.

Those words led St. Clair Catholic’s director to warn parents to be prepared for labour unrest.

“At this point, the length of the work stoppage is not known.  Although the Ontario government has introduced legislation to avert a strike by CUPE, the union has made public statements in the media that it will defy any return to work order and remain on strike until further notice,” Johnson continued.  “Parents/guardians should prepare for an uncertain future and make alternate child care arrangements, as necessary.”

Both the public and Catholic board directors say there will be remote learning should the strike continue next week.