A photo of CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn.
“I have to have hope and I do know that there is pressure growing,” Fred Hahn told rabble. Credit: CUPE

Ontario could be on the brink of a labour action not seen since the Canadian Labour Congress’ strike of 1976 as Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario President Fred Hahn said that a general strike in the province is “absolutely a possibility.”

CUPE is reacting to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government’s threat to use the controversial notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Constitution to force an agreement on educational support staff in an effort to keep schools open.

Talks between the province and CUPE broke down last month and CUPE has threatened that its 55,000 educational support workers will strike on Friday, November 4 unless the province returns to the negotiating table with a meaningful offer.

“We’re the school secretaries who keep the school running, we’re the custodian and maintenance workers to keep it clean and safe,” Hahn said in an interview with rabble.ca “Our members are the early childhood educators who are working in in kindergarten classrooms, and the the education assistants who work with special needs students and the library technicians who help with literacy and child and youth workers.”

A fight for a fairer deal

CUPE is arguing for higher wage increases for its members, 70 per cent of whom are women and 60 per cent of whom get laid off every year over the summer. Hahn explained that the average wage for educational support workers is around $39,000 a year.

CUPE was asking the government for an 11 per cent increase in the annual wage of their employees, but they said that the province returned with an insultingly low number of just two per cent.

The rate of inflation in Ontario in the month of September was 6.9 per cent. When inflation is taken into account, the province is essentially asking CUPE workers to take a five per cent pay cut from the previous year.

“We’ve been talking about a flat rate wage increase of $3.25 an hour. That was our initial opening proposal. And it is what we have been talking about for some time,” Hahn said, explaining that over the past decade the wages of educational workers have taken up a smaller and smaller percentage of the provincial budget.

Ford reaches for ‘nuclear option’

In order to prevent a pending strike, the Doug Ford government has introduced a bill to the legislature that invokes the Canadian Constitution’s notwithstanding clause.

The clause allows a provincial or federal government to pass a law that contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a period of five years if they hold a majority in their legislature.

In this case, the notwithstanding clause would be used to impose a contract on CUPE’s employees and make it illegal for them to strike.

“It’s a monstrous overreach. It is the nuclear option,” said Hahn. “But in fact, the more I learn about this legislation, I realize it is not just the nuclear option, it’s a nuclear bomb and then you salt the earth and then you burn down every village that is still outstanding.”

Hahn said that the notwithstanding clause would prevent CUPE, or anyone for that matter, from suing the government over the proposed contract or from even having it reviewed by an independent tribunal.

Ford became the first premier in the history of Ontario to invoke the notwithstanding clause to restore parts of his Election Finances Act that had been declared unconstitutional in 2021.

The bill which would impose a contract on CUPE and make their strike on November 4 illegal is scheduled to be voted on on Thursday, November 3.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said that he will not negotiate with CUPE unless their threat to strike is withdrawn.

Hahn said that despite this, and despite the use of the notwithstanding clause to make the strike illegal, there are still plans to go ahead with the job action on Friday.

“It is still, at this point, a legal strike date. If in fact the bill that is before the entire legislature becomes law, then we will be on a protest that day and our members are prepared to continue to protest because there’s just too much at stake,” Hahn said.

Building a resistance movement

On Tuesday, November 1, 5,000 members of CUPE and their supporters rallied outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto. Hahn said that other unions as well as even some school boards have expressed their support for the education workers.

Hahn explained that the possibility of a general strike is very real in a way he had not imagined in the past.

“I think it is absolutely a possibility in a way I hadn’t imagined before. Many of us talk about the idea of a general strike as though it were a fantasy land, a lovely dream. But I do think that people see what is at stake and if a government isn’t going to allow for any democratic process or any democratic debate, if they’re just gonna create legislation that is such a ridiculous hammer to hang over the heads of people, and continue to cut services . . . this is the beginning of much resistance to many of the components that this government has here.”

-Fred Hahn

The labour relations issue currently being fought between the province and CUPE is just one part of a larger struggle that Hahn sees over Ford’s efforts to continue to restrict wages for government employees and cut services.

Hahn referenced Bill 124 which was passed by the Ford government which caps wages for some public employees like nurses at one per cent per year. He also sees Ford’s efforts to introduce privatization into the health care system as another attack on government services.

“It is a movement that builds and that is what we need,” Hahn said about the idea of a general strike. “We need a movement that continues to build here. That brings together communities and allies and labor and others to really talk about the kind of Ontario we want. This is not the kind of Ontario we want.”

Hahn remains hopeful that an agreement can still be reached with the province.

“I have to have hope and I do know that there is pressure growing,” Hahn said.

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Nick Seebruch

Nick Seebruch has been the editor of rabble.ca since April 2022. He believes that fearless independent journalism is key for the survival of a healthy democracy. An OCNA award-winning journalist, for...