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Laura Walton wants to 'breathe life' into Ontario labour

The CUPE leader who fought the Ford government on behalf of education workers hopes to lead Canada's largest labour federation
Laura Walton speaks at the 2023 Canadian Labour Congress convention in May 2023. Supplied.

"There is a feeling" — and Laura Walton wants to capitalize on it.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) presidential hopeful spoke with The Trillium Wednesday morning at CUPE's Ontario HQ in Markham, saying she wants to use the excitement around labour issues worldwide to educate workers in Ontario and build power from the ground up.

Walton is the current head of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions. You may remember her as the face of the school workers' fight with the Ford government last year.

In November, the PCs attempted to use the notwithstanding clause to impose a four-year contract on non-teacher workers like custodians, early childhood educators and librarians, preventing them from striking.

It was a miscalculation, to say the least. Unions — even ones who support the PCs — came to CUPE's aid and prepared to shut down much of the province. The government repealed the legislation and the two sides returned to the table, resulting in $1/hour raises for CUPE's workers.

The situation awoke something in Walton, she said — eventually.

“I kind of went into my shell” the month after the union’s win, she said with a laugh. “I think it was just a lot of stimulation.”

“But then we started getting phone calls to come and speak to workers in different places,” she said. “And that's when I started to realize that this had become something bigger than just education workers and Laura Walton. This was really workers as a whole seeing an opportunity.”

Labour is having a moment globally — from the Amazon and Starbucks union drives in the United States to the port workers’ strike in British Columbia, to the GTA Metro workers’ strike mandate close to home. 

It’s that momentum Walton hopes to capitalize on at the helm of the OFL, Canada's largest labour federation, representing more than 1 million workers in 54 unions. 

She's on "Team Ignite" with secretary-treasurer incumbent Ahmad Gaied, and executive vice-president candidate Jackie Taylor, of the United Steelworkers member and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. They’re the only candidates so far, and they’ve already sewn up CUPE’s endorsement.

“We're in this kind of rebirth of the robber baron movement, right? Where you had the Vanderbilts and the Astors. Now, we have the Westons,” she said, referring to the billionaire Loblaw-owning family.

“History has a wonderful way of repeating itself,” she said.

COVID was a “catalyst” for a lot of workers who were called heroes but treated like “nothing,” Walton said. 

She said she wants to help “breathe some life” into Ontario’s labour movement. 

“People will say to me, ‘Oh, well, you know, we don't pay attention to politics.’ But politics is paying attention to workers, right?” she said. “And then people will say, ‘Well, we don't have a labour party. Well, if you want a labour party, you have to put labour into the party.”

To that end, Walton said she was on her way to Kanata that night to work on NDP Kanata—Carleton candidate Melissa Coenraad’s campaign.

It’s the latest in a big cross-country tour, she said. She was in Timmins and Sudbury recently, and had got back from Thunder Bay Tuesday night. Her team is going to Niagara soon, and she to Brockville, then Hamilton later this week to talk with unions.

“I have some amazing relationships with the leaders in those unions. But we also want to be talking to the workers in those unions,” she said. “And I think that's what's really exciting, is watching the leaders of these unions engage with their workers, and see what's really important to them.”

Bread-and-butter issues are number 1, she said, noting that inflation is way down, but grocery prices are still up. 

Educating workers on what to do about that frustration will be a key priority, she said.

“That's how you start to make gains — not just in rallies, but going out and saying to somebody, you know, ‘What bugs you?’ And then saying, ‘What are you ready to do about it?’” she said.

Walton said she didn’t always want to be a labour leader. She took political science at the University of Waterloo before dropping out. Her high school yearbook said she would be a journalist.

But looking at her lineage, she might not have had a choice. Her father, a principal in the Mike Harris days, walked the picket lines with his staff, and Walton walked with him. Her mother was an organizer with the Ontario Nurses' Association.

“My great-grandmother went around signing petitions in her horse and cart to get girls to be allowed to go to school in rural Ontario,” she said. 

“So I come from a long line of these folks that are agitators and resistors,” she said. “This feels like home. So yeah, I think I'm where I'm supposed to be.”

She’ll have her work cut out if she wins.

The Ford government has successfully wooed many workers in private sector unions by pounding the pavement, putting forward policies aimed at gig workers, and promising big infrastructure projects and the jobs that go with them.

“Those things didn't happen within a vacuum,” Walton said. “This happened by a concerted effort by folks to raise attention, raise awareness of issues. And that's really the role that the OFL plays.”

Walton said she wants to sit down with workers who support Doug Ford and find out what drew them to the PCs. 

“We need to be talking about … why Doug Ford has been successful. And then we also have to recognize that if we don't want a repeat in 2026, it's time to get in front of the workers and talk to them about what they need to see,” she said. 

There were some who wanted the unions to keep pushing after the government backed down over the notwithstanding clause — to shut down the province and force a bigger settlement. Walton herself said at the time that she “didn’t like” the eventual deal they got. But she maintains it was the right call. 

“I think that the Nov. 7 decision to tear down the picket lines was a tough one. But it was the right one, because workers would have received like a pittance of an imposed agreement,” she said.

Walton said she wishes she had the connections she has now, back then.

“Because I think if we were to do it now, it would look a lot different because I think other people would be ready,” she said

Already, “I think workers … are going into strikes in a much different way,” she said, noting that unions are now posting not just strike mandates but high participation rates.

“And these are some of the things that I think the OFL can help foster and help train up and help folks understand, listen, if you're gonna go for a strike vote, let's make sure that we have a supermajority of members ready to go on strike so that the boss understands that we mean business,” she said.

She added that CUPE’s fight paved the way for other unions to be more aggressive.

“(The Public Service Alliance of Canada) was able to go out on strike, knowing that legislating them back was not the first choice that would happen, right? Because there was no way that Justin Trudeau was going to connect with the Conservatives to do something that he was screaming at Ford about doing,” she said.

Same thing with the port workers, she said. 

“Nobody talks about legislating them back to work without somebody mentioning, ‘Oh, but the education workers in Ontario said, ‘No way,’” she said. “So that, to me, is a win that will go down in the record books.”

For now, Walton said she doesn't have political ambitions, but she didn't rule it out.

"I don't ever want to say no to anything. I think opportunities will present themselves," she said, citing Judy Darcy, a former CUPE national president who became British Columbia's first-ever minister of mental health and addictions with the NDP. 

"But my goal is to do the best job representing workers where I am right now. And bringing together workers, wherever that is.”

The OFL will hold its election at its biennial convention this November.

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