Education workers and province both back off after two-day showdown


Negotiations resume but there’s no agreement yet

Christian Gammon-Roy


King Street in Sturgeon Falls was quite busy on Friday, November 4th and again on the following Monday. Striking CUPE education and school support workers were picketing on downtown sidewalks holding signs decrying the provincial government’s unwillingness to negotiate a fair work contract, not to mention their use of Bill 28 which attempted to force the CUPE members back to work. Approximately 40 to 50 people gathered in the morning, with the same amount picking up in the afternoon.

Though CUPE represents education workers, there is an important distinction to make between them and the teachers who are represented by their own union. Their members are the educational assistants, custodians, librarians, and many other staff that are also crucial to a school’s operation. In fact, due to the strike, some school boards announced school closures. “Due to the impact of the strike within the schools in the CSPNE, it will be impossible to guarantee the safety, supervision and security of the students attending classrooms while also delivering fair learning,” read a statement by the French public school board on the first day of the strike. This affected both É.s.p. Nipissing Ouest and Jeunesse Active, which were closed both days of the strike.

The local strikers were generally well supported. SCFP local 4865 president Michel Gagnon said on Monday that the community support had been incredible. A table set just outside John Vanthof’s office, stocked with coffee and donuts, was consistently being refilled by donations from community members. They even received a $200 gift card from an anonymous donor. Throughout both days, drivers would honk in support as they passed by. The local response matched provincial data: an Abacus Data poll released Monday showed that support for CUPE in Ontario is fairly high, with 62% of polled Ontarians blaming the Ford government for school closures caused by the strike.

Field resident Julie Ann Bertram, a recently elected school board trustee for the Near North District School Board, was asked to come speak to the crowd downtown. In a statement, she wrote: “As a newly elected School Board Trustee, I have not been sworn in yet, and could not speak to this on behalf of the Board anyway; nor do I have a relation to any union. Yet, as a parent elected to this position, it is vital to let local education workers know that they are fully supported. To all our EAs, ECEs, custodians, librarians, administrative staff and everyone who works in support of education, YOU are an important part of the village that helps raise each child in this province! You deserve more than a poverty wage, and you have every right to strike.”

NDP MPPs were also in support of striking CUPE workers, with 16 of them being ejected from the Legislature in Toronto on November 2nd for speaking out against Bill 28 and the use of the notwithstanding clause. The bill aimed to force CUPE workers back to work and impose a four-year contract, taking away their legal right to strike. The use of the notwithstanding clause effectively removed the union’s ability to mount a Charter challenge against the legislation. Local MPP John Vanthof, who was in the Legislature at the time this was passed, came to his Sturgeon Falls office in support of the strikers.

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