“You don’t know what you’ve started!” was one of many warnings shouted at politicians by leaders of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) earlier this month from the public gallery of the Ontario parliament. The MPs had just passed the strike-breaking Bill 28, or Keeping Students in Class Act, which used something called the “notwithstanding clause” to force a contract onto workers while making it illegal for them to take any strike action. The notwithstanding clause, or Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, gives provincial governments the power to override certain sections of the Charter for a five-year period. Its use in this case was to protect Bill 28 from any constitutional challenges.

The seat of Ontario Premier Doug Ford was empty, presumably because he didn’t have the stomach to face the CUPE leadership. Bill 28 means that if CUPE chose to strike, each of its 55,000 members would be fined $4,000 per day, and the union accruing up to $500,000 in fines each day. After the first day of the strike on 4 November, the union was hit with a bill of around $220 million. But three days later, the fines were a dead-letter and Bill 28 was repealed, with Ford forced into an embarrassing U-turn. So how did education workers beat Ford’s government?

CUPE members, who include custodians, maintenance workers, early childhood educators, librarians, and education assistants, are some of the lowest paid education workers in the province. According to a report from Ontario School Board Council of Unions, more than 71 percent of these workers are women. Union President Laura Walton told the media that many of her members have reported needing to use food-banks.

Despite CUPE dropping its original demand of around 11 percent annual pay rises to 6 percent, Education Minister Stephen Lecce was using Bill 28 to lock workers into a four-year deal that gave 2.5 percent annual raises to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5 percent raises for all others, while inflation in Ontario currently sits at 7.9 percent. More than 96 percent of union members voted in favour of striking. “They’ve awakened a labour giant”, Walton said of the government’s decision to pass Bill 28.

On 4 November, the union organised demonstrations around the province. At one outside the Ontario parliament, a union member described the bill as an “existential crisis for the entire labour movement ... What’s the point of a union if we can’t do collective action? What’s the point of a constitution if we don’t get the rights that it affords us?”

It’s not every day that union leaders are willing to bring their members out in defiance of the law. Usually, the threat of fines is enough to force them into submission. What pushed the CUPE leaders over the edge in this instance was, in part, the cumulative effect of two terms of the union-busting “open for business” approach of Progressive Conservative Party (PC) Premier Doug Ford.

In office, Ford has slashed public spending and horrifically mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic. He refused to legislate universal paid sick days when the pandemic was tearing through workplaces, and then used the pandemic’s impact on business operations to justify imposing wage freezes on public sector employees and giving bosses the right to violate collective agreements and bargaining rights for unionised workers. Wage freezes implemented by both Liberal and PC governments have resulted in education workers losing 11 percent of their wages in real terms over the last decade.

Years of wage restraint and “open for business” policies from both sides of the aisle are now combining with record inflation and housing stress. After suffering through Ford’s mismanagement of the pandemic, which according to Government of Ontario statistics left 12,247 dead, workers are struggling to afford necessities as costs and profits climb while their wages continue to stagnate.

As CUPE members walked off the job on 4 November, rallies and pickets were organised in cities and towns around Ontario. Despite solidarity strikes being illegal in Canada, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 8,000 workers, joined the CUPE strike in solidarity. Other education unions, like the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, are in the midst of tense negotiations.

A number of construction unions that previously supported Ford’s election campaign, like the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Union of Operating Engineers, came out against Bill 28 and said they had “buyer’s remorse” about supporting Ford. The Amalgamated Transport Union, whose 2,200 members started a strike for better wages and conditions on 7 November, called on its members to join the demonstrations in solidarity with CUPE members.

Daniel Boyer, President of the Quebec Federation of Labour, was quoted as saying “the entire Canadian labour movement will mobilise” in support of CUPE workers, and that “if we have to go to Toronto, we will go to Toronto”. The federation represents some 500,000 workers. The Ontario Federation of Labour, Canada’s largest union federation, was reportedly in serious talks about calling a general strike across the province. All this was enough to spook Ford into repealing Bill 28 and agreeing to restart negotiations with CUPE, but on the conditions that the strikes were called off.

While the defeat of Bill 28 is a victory for the entire Canadian labour movement, the decision by CUPE leadership to call off the strikes as a show of “good-faith” before sitting back down at the bargaining table is a mistake. Education workers had Ford’s government backed into a corner, but they hadn’t won any of their demands. With the provincial government in retreat, the union leaders could have pressed forward with the strike, generalised it to other unions, and gone into negotiations in an extremely favourable position.

It is not clear how the negotiations will now play out. Significantly, a group of rank-and-file CUPE members have started organising members independently of the union leaders. An online statement from the CUPE Local 4400 Rank and File Group explains that their goal “is to organise our co-workers to bring back militancy in the labour movement so that when we strike, we win!”

The level of organisation from below will be a key factor in whether education workers can keep the pressure on the Ford government and their own leaders.