• By: Dan Donovan

Premier Ford is dead wrong in his approach to Education Workers.

The bully in the room in Ontario education.

Ontario education workers are poorly paid. Many of them work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. They have the hard-earned right, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, to bargain and negotiate a decent salary for themselves.

While it is true that Ontario teachers are well compensated and negotiate with the province annually over wages and benefits, the same is not true for the over 20,000 OSSTF members who work as education workers—the continuing education teachers, instructors, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, social workers, plant support personnel, attendance counsellors, custodians, school office staff, lunchroom supervisors, early childhood educators, educational assistants, secretaries, clerical staff, child and youth development workers who help children with autism and behaviour problems, and many others.

They bring their ‘A-game’ to work every day to support students in the classroom, and are underpaid. Most want to stay working in the education field but are constrained by the fact that they earn on average $39,000 to $45,000 a year. The reality is that Ontario has one of the best secondary and post-secondary school systems in the world in large part due to their contributions. Yet, for decades, they have not been properly remunerated and, increasingly, they are being asked to do even more without the commensurate pay increase for the extra work.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) President Karen Littlewood told Ottawa Life Magazine that the Ford government is “instilling fear in parents and students by villainizing unions and educators, saying our contract negotiations will cause disruptions to the school year. They were saying that before the school year had even started.” When the school year started in September Littlewood expressed dismay over comments made by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on August 17, 2022 when he claimed that unions were seeking a 52 percent pay increase over four years for education workers, describing it as an “astronomical, unreasonable amount that’s unfair to Ontario taxpayers.”

Littlewood says the reality is that “our education worker members earn less than $45,000 a year. Many must rely on a second or third job to get by. They provide support to students that are most in need and yet are among the most underpaid and disrespected.”

The Ford government has offered a two percent-a-year increase for workers earning less than $40,000 yearly and a 1.25 percent for everyone else. Julie Fontaine, president of the OSSTF local representing 350 support staff working in classrooms at Ottawa’s French Catholic school board, said her members are underpaid. She said there is a staffing shortage because it’s difficult to attract and retain employees. Fontaine, who has a three-year diploma in child and youth development, worked for 22 years at the board, helping children with autism and behaviour problems. She earned $40,000 for the school year and was laid off in the summer. “I loved my job,” said Fontaine. “I would get up in the morning and be so happy to go to work with the children….” However, she said she was forced to work second jobs in a group home and as a server to make ends meet. “I’m not ashamed to say that. I had to support my family.”

Premier Doug Ford’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause (Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) to impose a contract on education workers like Fontaine and strip her and other Canadian Union of Public Employees of their legal right to strike is a nasty, bullying and unnecessary action and an abuse of the rule of law by a Premier who is fond of bragging about his “law and order government”. Well, the ‘law part’ of that braggadocio was just badly soiled.

The current round of bargaining for education workers after two years of unprecedented interruptions to student learning due to Covid has been going nowhere for months. It is very apparent that Education Minister Stephen Lecce and the premier are deliberately gaslighting this issue to stick it to the powerful teachers’ unions whom they see as ideological adversaries. CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions declared their education worker members would go on strike on November 4th and the province pounced on the announcement to declare they would use the notwithstanding clause.

Littlewood maintains that all Ontarians benefit from a strong, stable public education system. She says that stability for those who learn and work in Ontario’s schools “starts with ensuring we have certified and trained professionals in school that provide the supports and services that students need.” Littlewood noted, that “while the government says they can’t afford more investments in education and its workers, they are choosing to underfund the public education system. They have nearly a billion dollars of unspent federal money meant for Ontario’s schools.”

She has been consistent in calling for real investments in public education in Ontario “that ensure students get a robust learning experience in a stable environment with access to the supports and services they need. Students deserve nothing less.”

The right to bargain collectively is a fundamental precept in the rule of law in Canada. It is based on the principle that all citizens be treated equally according to the same legal standards.

Canadian courts have recognized repeatedly that a worker’s right to collective bargaining is a fundamental part of Canada’s labour laws. These rights were hard fought for over the past century and the idea that the Ford government is willing to suppress them with the heavy-handed action of invoking the notwithstanding clause to score political points and divide people is the same tactic used when Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the Emergency Measures Act (EMA) in February during the so-called trucker occupation to suspend the rights of Canadians protesting over Covid restrictions. When Trudeau was asked about Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to suppress the rights of Ontario education workers, he pompously declared how improper it was for Ford to make such a move, yet it did not occur to him that he was criticizing Ford for doing the same thing he had done months earlier. When Trudeau invoked the EMA the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) executive director Noa Mendelsohn said its use “seriously infringes on the Charter rights of Canadians.” She added that, “Emergency powers cannot and must not be normalized.”  Sadly, it appears that Premier Ford is doing exactly that by invoking the notwithstanding clause to stop education workers from getting a fair wage or from going on strike.

Ford’s move, like Trudeau’s invoking of the EMA, is akin to hitting a fly with a hammer. When political leaders take the drastic action of suspending the Constitution to avoid the political consequences of a legal strike, whether it is over the trucker protests in Ottawa or in Ontario’s schools when education workers try to legally bargain in good faith, it is an abuse of our very democracy. Sadly, the only people who are going to be hurt by Premier Ford’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause are Ontario students and their families.