Ontario has announced it will fully repeal controversial legislation that undermined workers’ right to strike, in a major reversal for the province’s conservative government following days of immense political pressure – and the looming threat of a general strike.
Nearly 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees walked out on Friday after the conservative government of the Ontario premier, Doug Ford, introduced legislation that would unilaterally impose a contract on education workers, and levy hefty fines for striking. But on Monday morning, union leaders announced they would end their protest “in a gesture of good faith” following the conservative government’s abrupt turnaround.
Flanked by labour leaders from across the country, Mark Hancock, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Cupe), said education workers had emerged victorious in their standoff, calling Ford’s attempt to break the strikes as a “regressive attack” that “united the labour movement like never before”.
“[Union members] took on the government – and the government blinked,” he said.
Ontario fast-tracked passage of Bill 28, which would have fined striking workers C$4,000 ($2,955; £2,260) for every day on strike and imposed penalties of C$500,000 a day on a striking union.
The law sparked controversy for breachingworkers’ rights to collectively bargain and was seen as setting a troubling precedent in Canada’s most populous province. It was deployed using a rarely used mechanism called the notwithstanding clause of the country’s constitution.
On Monday, Laura Walton, president of the Cupe Ontario school board council said Bill 28 would be rescinded in its entirety, only days after it was enacted. It will also be deemed not to have been passed as law, she told reporters.
Earlier on Monday, Ford had signalled his government was poised to back down.
“Our government is willing to rescind the legislation … but only if Cupe agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike,” Ford told reporters. “I urge Cupe to continue to talk with us at the bargaining table.”
Citing the “right” of students to remain in class following more than two years of pandemic-related disruption, Ford said the decision to pre-emptively invoke the notwithstanding clause, which permits his government to pass legislation in violation of the charter – and to shield it from judicial review was an “an unprecedented situation that required unprecedented solutions”.
The legislation would have imposed a four-year contract on the union that includes 2.5% annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5% for those earning more. The union had initially asked for an 11.3% raise for workers, citing stagnant wage growth and high inflation.