The Threat of a General Strike Shook Doug Ford’s Ontario Government

Due to walkouts and the threat of a general strike, Ontario’s premier has walked back a bill that would have robbed workers of the right to strike. But Ontario labor’s willingness to defend working-class livelihoods will be needed in forthcoming negotiations.

Ontario premier Doug Ford held a news conference at Queens Park, where he offered to back down in return for CUPE calling off its strike ahead of a news conference from Canadian unions calling for escalated strike action, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on November 7, 2022. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

On October 31, the Ontario government introduced Bill 28, legislation that preemptively declared strike action illegal for the custodians, early childhood educators, and educational assistants represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The Ford government further imposed a regressive contract on the 55,000 CUPE education workers.

The announcement prompted 2,500 workers to rally on the lawn of the legislature, chanting “Ford Out!” The union, for its part, reiterated its plan to strike “until further notice.” Education minister Stephen Lecce refused to back down, rejecting calls for a “voluntary deal,” thereby adding to the inevitability of the “illegal strike.”

The so-called illegal strike quickly gathered momentum, morphing into a planned “general strike” of mass demonstrations and walkouts led by Ontario’s public and private sector unions — a situation of mounting labor outrage demanding that Ford promise to renege.

While much remains uncertain, there is little doubt that the past week has been a historic demonstration of labor solidarity. In the lead-up to the planned general strike, Jacobin spoke to a number of union members about the mood within the union and the tasks ahead.

“There Is a Fighting Mood in the Rank and File”

Hermes Azam, a caretaker at the Toronto District School Board and a member of CUPE 4400’s rank-and-file group, started working in the school system two years ago. Each day, Azam says, his duties involve cleaning and waxing floors, servicing washrooms, security checking doors, scrubbing walls, and more. “The schools are chronically understaffed, and the caretakers are overworked,” he says, because “schools that would have five caretakers ten or fifteen years ago are down to one or two today.”

On top of this, Azam says,

During the pandemic, additional duties were incorporated into the workday for no additional pay or staffing. This was called enhanced cleaning, which involved disinfecting all high touch areas and surfaces. This was up to one to two hours of extra work daily.

The result, he said, is clear — an 83 percent turnover among exhausted staff on one hand and a 96.5 percent strike vote on the other. “There is a fighting mood in the rank and file,” he says.

Tremaine Nour, another caretaker, likewise notes that sundry other duties have piled up. “Sometimes kids get hurt and you’re the closest adult around,” Nour says. “As caretakers, we’re mindful of these things, and so we try our best to finish our cleaning tasks earlier in the day so that, in any of these cases, we’re able to attend to the school’s needs.”

The Imposed Contract

Ontario’s school system saw a surge in emergency hires to keep students safe during the worst of the pandemic. Scrambling for a solution for incurred costs in the spring of 2021, the Ford government cut $1.6 billion from the education system and rewarded its frontline workers with wage cuts and precarity.

Building on years of austerity from the previous Liberal government, which offered 0 percent wage increases from 2012 to 2015 and between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent for 2015–18, the result of these laughably insufficient wage adjustments is that 51 percent of the union’s members are stuck working a second job to survive.

Yet in the lead-up to the first round of bargaining, as the union acknowledged to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the government began making threats even before its first offer — insisting, in its early August Plan to Catch Up to do all that is necessary to “keep kids in class” — with the exception of paying its workers enough to live on.

After three years of massive corporate bailout efforts and facing a new recession, the crown audaciously insisted that cuts are the only way to maintain the “fiscal sustainability” of the school system. As the document puts it: “These uncertainties combined with the highest debt of any subnational jurisdiction in the world are the key factors for consideration regarding sustainability of labor agreements, not revenue alone as suggested by CUPE/Ontario School Board Council of Unions.”

Over the course of negotiations, Ford doubled down on his threats — warning the province’s education workers, “Do not force my hand.” In lieu of a “voluntary deal,” the Ford government imposed most of its own proposal on the workers. In the imposed contract, the workers’ wages would rise by a paltry 2.5 percent increase each September against 6.8 percent inflation.

Other parts of the regressive proposal would cut the workers’ short-term disability leave and block demands to hire early childhood educators (ECEs) for all kindergarten classrooms. The proposal’s Supports for Students Fund is set to increase by just 1.8 percent over the next year, 1.9 percent the year following, and 1.8 percent in 2025–26.

The text of the imposed contract appears to also remove a clause in Letter of Understanding #3 that would otherwise block “trade-offs” between workers of different classifications — from maintenance staff to ECEs. Since October 31, the government reportedly rejected at least one counteroffer by the union. As labor’s umbrage at the contract and legislation boiled over, the ever-recalcitrant Lecce stated that “we will not accept a strike this Friday or any day.”

Bill 28 represented a serious threat to the entirety of the labor movement. If implemented, it would have set a precedent for other governments to eliminate the right of workers to associate and strike whenever their efforts became inconvenient. Moreover, it would leave workers without any legal recourse to protect themselves. The Ford government’s handling of the negotiations was a threat to the entire working class.

The affair took the mask off of the existing labor relations regime. The usual principles of back-to-work legislation, as defined by Canada’s Supreme Court in 2015, say that workers have the right to strike and bargain collectively.

This constitutional protection has not stopped either provincial governments or the federal government from using the legislation again and again against teaching assistants, dockworkers, postal workers, power workers, and others. But in these other instances, the right to strike usually provides, as a sort of release valve, a process for judicial review and legal redress on the charter question and a binding arbitration process, for settling contracts. With Bill 28, Ford eliminated those pressure valves.

“Our coworkers understand that they are the backbone of public education and deserve to keep up with the cost of living,” Azam says. “After a worldwide pandemic, cuts to sick days are also not acceptable.”

“I see a fire among our ranks,” Nour says. “People want to fight, and if our leaders instruct us to stay out on the pickets all throughout, we will.”

“If the government isn’t going to respect the law. Why should we?” asks Karen, another CUPE 4400 member.

“Weakness Invites Aggression”

The Ford government’s attacks go well beyond the CUPE contract negotiations. The Ford government has also renewed its efforts to replace teachers with online learning modules and has talked of rewriting the school curriculum to reflect “private sector” aims and “job market” realities.

More fundamentally, the speed with which the legislation was prepared suggests that the government intended to make an example of CUPE. As the union’s Ontario Labour Relations Board filing observed, Minister Lecce’s main speech advocating for the legislation “provides no explanation whatsoever as to why Bill 28 did not provide for a less impairing option rather than imposing collective agreement terms.”

As Azam noted in advance of the strike:

While education workers need to lead this struggle, we will not be able to fight this alone. To defeat back-to-work legislation and the unprecedented move of suspending the right to strike by the notwithstanding clause, we need the strike to spread.

The Ford government’s attack on labor is about making frontline workers and the education system pay for the last crisis and the government’s corporate bailout scheme. According to the Financial Accountability Office, the province’s schools will face a $6-billion funding shortfall over the next six years. By other estimates, the system could see a $19-billion shortfall by the end of the decade. Left up to Ford, there is little doubt who will be made to pay for those cuts.

In the lead up-to the strike, CUPE was supported publicly by a number of other unions in the public and private sectors. On the first day, eight thousand education workers, including education assistants and ECEs, organized with the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) joined the strike.

As Nour put it when the strike began, “Weakness invites aggression. We can’t backtrack now. What we need to do is defy the legislation and stay out on the picket lines until we win.”

Unpacking Ford’s Retreat

On November 7, Ford announced that his government would offer a “gesture of good faith” to the education workers. The deflated premier, with a trembling voice, promised to “rescind” the legislation — albeit not until Monday, November 14.

With schools shut down, the premier realized, much of the economy is shut down with it, and in Ford’s words, “Parents can’t go to the construction sites.” In his morning speech, Ford defended the legislation, attributing it to “an unprecedented situation that requires unprecedented solutions.”

Ford may have wanted to make gestures of good faith, but he was nonetheless defensive in the scrum, answering “absolutely not” when asked if he thinks the use of the notwithstanding clause was a misstep. As CityNews observed of the announcement: “The premier did not respond when asked if he would use the notwithstanding clause again if a deal can’t be reached.”

While a defeat of the anti-strike law is an achievement, the details of what will be on the table as bargaining continues remains unclear. When Ford was asked why CUPE’s members should trust him, the premier did not answer, offering the public a few rambling thoughts about the province’s highways instead.

Whatever happens in further negotiations between Ford and CUPE, the events of the last week have demonstrated that Ontario workers are willing to engage a sustained mobilization across communities to defend working-class livelihoods.