Ontario education workers are standing down in their political protest and heading back to class.
On Monday morning, Premier Doug Ford offered to repeal Bill 28, legislation that uses the Charter's notwithstanding clause to force a contract on some of the province's lowest-paid education workers and make their strikes illegal. In exchange, tens of thousands of education support workers will return to the job.
The two sides will also soon resume negotiating, they've agreed.
The government will table legislation to remove Bill 28 from law next Monday, Nov. 14, instead of recalling MPPs to repeal it this week, which isn't a pre-scheduled sitting week, the premier's office said.
In spite of the law passed last week, the 55,000 education support workers who are members of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions went on strike on Friday and Monday. Tens of thousands of workers instead attended protests held mainly at Queen's Park and MPPs' offices across Ontario.
Many of the province's public schools have been closed without the necessary janitors, educational assistants, early childhood educators, administrative staff and others needed for them to open for in-person learning.
Backed by Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Ford announced on Monday morning that his government was willing to walk back Bill 28 if CUPE's members would stop striking and the union would return to the bargaining table. Their contract, like those between the government and the province's other major education worker unions, expired at the end of August. Lecce has been overseeing the government's negotiations with them ever since.
Lecce has maintained since the summer that his priority in negotiations was "keeping kids in classrooms" after two years of pandemic-caused disruptions.
But public opinion polling done late last week showed most Ontarians blamed the government — not workers — for school closures and said the government should return to negotiating with the union instead of continuing its current approach.
Unions and other labour groups from across Canada also came together to support CUPE and its wildcat strike. Numerous labour leaders expressed that the Ford government crossed the line by using the notwithstanding clause to work around collective bargaining rights that the Supreme Court has ruled are protected by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
On Sunday, Global News and others reported that labour groups were putting together a multi-sector workers' strike against Bill 28 next week.
Ford announced his offer to CUPE publicly at Queen's Park just after 9 a.m. on Monday morning.
"Our government is willing to rescind the legislation, we're willing to rescind Section 33, but only if CUPE agrees to show a similar gesture of good faith by stopping their strike and letting our kids back into their classrooms," Ford told reporters.
"I urge CUPE to continue to talk with us at the bargaining table."
Around noon, the leadership of CUPE and other labour groups held a press conference at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Toronto.
"We've received (in writing), and can confirm, that the premier will introduce and support legislation that will repeal Bill 28 in its entirety," said Laura Walton, president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, whose announcement was greeted with applause.
"As a gesture of good faith to this announcement, CUPE-OSBCU will be collapsing our protest sites starting (Tuesday). We hope this gesture is met with the same good faith by the government with a new proposal at the bargaining table."
The crowd of a few thousand picketers that began forming outside Queen's Park early on Monday had dispersed by early afternoon.
Before their negotiations fell apart last week, the government and union were still far apart on what each was willing to accept on key terms like annual wage increases stipulated by their collective bargaining agreement.
CUPE's last-ditch contract offer to the government was rejected on Wednesday. Negotiations broke off on Thursday afternoon. The PCs voted to pass Bill 28 a few hours later, all while Walton and other CUPE leaders and members disrupted the proceedings with shouts of "shame" and more from the legislative chamber's public gallery — which got them kicked out.
The cast of union and labour leaders who stood together while Walton announced that CUPE had accepted Ford's offer included other education workers' unions, others who represent public sector workers, as well as some from the private sector.
CUPE's national president Mark Hancock characterized their coming together as "unprecedented."
"Bill 28 was a direct threat to workers' rights and to the Charter rights of all Canadians," Hancock said. "It invoked the notwithstanding clause to undermine some of our most fundamental rights. That regressive attack on workers united the labour movement like never before."
Others who spoke, including OPSEU/SEFPO president JP Hornick, whose group represents 180,000 Ontario public sector workers, also made a point of highlighting how historically significant the events of the last week-plus have been.
"When you have the largest private sector union in Canada (Unifor) standing with the largest public sector unions in Ontario and saying, 'We will fight together for all workers,' the power of it cannot be understated," Hornick said.
Meanwhile, Ford said on Monday that he didn't regret passing Bill 28.
"We had no option but to use Section 33 to keep the kids in the classroom," the premier said.
He also continued to criticize and blame CUPE.
"This was nothing we did, this is on CUPE," Ford said. "If you've ever been at the negotiating table, there's one thing you don't do as you're negotiating — you don't get up and walk out on two million kids and parents."