Union support is pouring in for CUPE in its battle with the Ford government. At least one other union's workers plan to walk off the job on Friday in solidarity.
Now, it's time for a national discussion about next steps, according to the head of the largest private-sector union in Canada.
Organized labour groups feel it would be disastrous to lose this fight. The Ford government has broken the decades-long taboo of using the notwithstanding clause, and unions worry it could lead other governments to do the same — essentially removing Canadian public sector workers' ability to strike.
"If one provincial government can get away with this ... other governments will do it as well," Unifor President Lana Payne said in a call with QP Briefing.
Ford strategist Kory Tenycke told Power and Politics on Monday that this may not be the last time the government deploys the clause in labour disputes.
"What the government is saying — and this will extend to teachers as well — is ... if you want to use children as a pawn in your labour negotiations ... you're going to get legislated back, including the use of the notwithstanding clause," he said.
Payne said that slippery slope is why it's just as important for private-sector unions to stand up to the bill.
"Are auto workers — because they threatened to strike next year — when we go into bargaining, is the government going to say, 'Oh, yeah, we're going to help out the corporations here so that we're going to override those workers' rights, too'?" she said.
It's time for labour groups to coordinate on a national scale about what to do next, Payne said.
"This is serious enough of a matter that a collective discussion has to occur around what kind of response has to happen here," she said. "And I don't think any of us can say to you that the choice is, we can just roll over here. That cannot be the option."
Payne said she's spoken to many in the movement over the past couple of days and "solidarity is really strong among the unions on this."
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) has called for an "unprecedented show of force" to defeat Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act.
It's not yet clear what that could look like, but actions are starting to pile up.
The first sympathy strike will come on Friday. Ontario Public Service Employees Union's 8,000 education workers will walk off the job in support of CUPE, the union announced Thursday.
LiUNA local 3000, which mostly represents health-care workers, has pledged to picket with CUPE on Friday.
Union leaders at an OFL rally on Tuesday pledged to fight alongside CUPE as long as it takes.
Speaking from a truck bed outside the Ministry of Labour, Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates promised to "fight like hell" to defend workers' rights.
"Everything is on the table," she said.
Workers have to "stand up with CUPE and fight back," Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president Karen Littlewood said.
"We’re standing with you," Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president Karen Brown said.
David Chartrand, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' general vice-president, Canada, warned private-sector workers that "this movie is coming to a theatre near you" if the bill isn't defeated.
For now, the OFL is encouraging workers to support CUPE on picket lines wherever they can. The lines will be at MPP offices instead of schools, so OSSTF teachers don't have to cross them.
In the future, some are calling for a general strike.
This is absolute insanity. The only proper response is for workers across the province -- better yet, the country -- to join with CUPE and bring the province to its knees. https://t.co/SpXSSauEp6
— David Moscrop: Subscribe to my Substack. It’s fun! (@David_Moscrop) November 2, 2022
That's been discussed in general terms, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn told QP Briefing at the OFL rally. But if and when it happens, it'll be by the will of CUPE members, not him and other union leaders, he said.
Brown, as well as Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association president Barb Dobrowolski, also said whatever happens after Friday will be up to their members.
If the union heads were discussing a general strike, they likely wouldn't tell the media. It would take weeks or months of planning around who is going to strike when, and how to help workers put food on the table while they're off the job.
"You can't just do that overnight," Payne said.
But it wouldn't be unprecedented.
Ontario saw provincewide education strikes in 1997 — and the "Days of Action" against the Mike Harris PC government were essentially rolling, one-day municipal general strikes.
The last "true" general strike in Canada was in Winnipeg in 1919, when workers effectively shut the city down for five weeks.
Ontario unions threatened a general strike in early 2020 amid labour unrest — also largely due to education negotiations. There was a grassroots "general strike" in 2019 that was organized without union leadership. Some people did not attend work for a day, but it didn't make a political impact.
Payne said she's noticed a rise in worker militancy lately amid rising inflation and income inequality. Governments should be nervous, she said.
"I think we have to be very, very careful here when we start telling working people that the rights they assume that they have are no longer there, or we're going to pick and choose when they get to be applied," she said. "Then you have to be prepared for the response to that."