Canada’s unions have just won a huge victory for democracy in this country. By standing together in an unprecedented show of defiance, they have forced Ontario’s Ford government to rescind controversial legislation it had just enacted. Bill 28 imposed a deeply flawed contract on 55,000 education workers, and invoked the “Notwithstanding Clause” to override Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also sought to exempt its measures from a long list of other legal rights, including the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The drastic nature of Bill 28 was seen as an existential threat by the entire Canadian labour movement, as well as a violation of the Charter rights of all Canadians. While there have been many instances of back-to-work legislation forcing an end to strikes, none have included the “nuclear option” of overriding the Charter. In fact, it was the language of the Charter that the Supreme Court relied on in 2015 to uphold the fundamental right of workers to collective bargaining. This is the third time in four years that Ford has invoked the Notwithstanding Clause, and there is a real danger that provincial governments would start to use it any time they wanted to go after workers’ rights, or any other common rights we hold as citizens and residents.
That is why it is so important to honour the courage of the CUPE education workers, who were prepared to defy the law in the face of massive penalties. They represent a wide range of occupations – from secretaries and custodians to teaching assistants and early childhood educators – whose average wage is just $39,000/year. They are 70 per cent women, and have seen their paycheques eaten away by inflation and legislated salary caps over recent years. Their union has a long tradition of social justice advocacy, particularly for poor families and diverse communities, demanding that governments invest in education to “Give students what they need to succeed.” Faced with an intransigent opponent, they built a powerful campaign to engage their members and allies across the province.
Bill 28 galvanized Ontario’s labour movement, overcoming divisions and bringing public and private sector leaders together with a determined message to decision-makers in the province. Business leaders were told in no uncertain terms that Bill 28 would destabilize every relationship, including the possibility of wide-spread walk-outs in manufacturing and other sectors. Ford heard from key leaders in the construction unions that he had crossed a line and must repeal the Bill. Even the Prime Minister warned publicly of the precedent it set. Nobody knows what the real discussions were behind closed doors, but clearly the pressure was enough for Ford to relent.
This fight is far from over. Doug Ford is just one of many Conservative Premiers who are imposing austerity on public sector workers and collaborating to dramatically expand privatization f healthcare and other services. The prairie Premiers are fighting a scorched-earth war against federal climate action, while Alberta’s Danielle Smith threatens to sabotage all kinds of national standards. Those are issues that affect us all, and undermine the rights and protections that past generations fought to secure.
Sudbury Steelworker Leo Gerrard always reminded working people of one truth: “If you take on this fight I can’t guarantee you will win. But if you don’t take it on I can guarantee you will lose.” The Autoworkers slogan put it even more succinctly – “fighting back makes a difference.” As the Council of Canadians, we know it certainly does.
It’s too soon to predict how all this will turn out, CUPE workers still need to bargain an agreement with the government. But the defeat of Bill 28 is a truly historic victory for democracy and social justice – one that deserves to be celebrated and embraced as a teachable moment across the entire progressive movement in this country.
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