Kenora – Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford says the Ontario government was ‘left with no choice’ but to introduce back-to-work legislation for the over 50,000 education workers taking strike action across the province.

“First of all, I want to acknowledge the important role that these education workers provide in our classrooms and in our schools. But, for us, this is just about keeping kids in class,” said Rickford, in an interview with Q104, KenoraOnline and DrydenNow.

His comments come as thousands of education workers between the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union continue to take to the picket lines in protest of Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which passed on November 3.

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“We feel very strongly, in the wake of COVID and the significant impacts that we saw and continue to see on physical and mental health and academic performance, our top priority will be to keep kids in class,” adds Rickford. “Parents want their kids in class. That’s what we’re endeavoring to do.”

Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have also said they were ‘left with no choice’ but to introduce the legislation after negotiations ended without a new deal last week.

“We’ve made every effort to reach a fair deal, but all along, CUPE refused to take strikes and disruptions off the table,” says Rickford. “It left us no choice to put the Keeping Students in Class Act in place. We felt that this was the most appropriate tool to keep kids in class.”

The bill makes workers’ strike action illegal and protesters could face $4,000 fines for participating.

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Schools remained open today under the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board but closures may be necessary if CUPE members remain off the job next week. Schools under Kenora Catholic closed due to OPSEU members joining the strike action, announced late yesterday afternoon.

“As it stands, this is an illegal strike. Make no mistake about it,” explains Rickford. “We’ve offered a very fair deal. This is a group of workers who would be getting a 10 per cent increase over the next 4 years. Over 100 days sick leave. And a very solid, best in class retirement package and a very fair, competitive suite of benefits. That’s what’s on the table.”

The Ontario government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been negotiating a new contract for over 50,000 education workers since the summer. A 5-day strike notice was issued to school boards and the province on October 30.

Talks between the two parties began after the province unveiled their 4-year plan for education workers earlier this year, which called for 2 per cent wage increases for staff earning under $40,000 and increases of 1.25 per cent for everyone else.

CUPE has been calling for wage increases of nearly 12 per cent for all workers – with increases in overtime pay, additional education assistants and custodians, as well as increased staffing levels in libraries, offices and lunchrooms.

Ontario’s ‘final offer’ to CUPE members includes:

- 2.5 per cent wage increases for employees earning under $43,000 annually,
- 1.5 per cent wage increases for employees earning above $43,000 annually,
- A $6,120 employer-contributed benefits increase,
- Funding to support up to 875 teachers and up to 1,830 education workers,
- Modifications to sick leave and short-term disability leave plan provisions,
- $4.5 million in funding for apprenticeship training,
- An extension of modified job security provisions,

CUPE leadership rejected the offer shortly after it was made.

As Rickford, who also serves as Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Minister of Indigenous Affairs, notes – when this fight ends, Ontario will then have to set its sights on four major teachers’ unions whose contracts all expired on August 31, 2022.

“Keep in mind, this has real implications for a series of other negotiations with teachers’ unions moving forward. We’re keeping kids in class a top priority. We remain ready to move forward with the kind of situation that keeps our kids in class,” adds Rickford.

Minister Lecce says the government has appealed with the Ontario Labour Board to gain its support against workers’ actions. But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has said the use of Bill 28 was a ‘heavy-handed tactic’ that went too far.

Negotiations are expected to continue between the two parties over the weekend.

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