Ford's battle with CUPE could have long-term impact on labour talks, experts warn
Emboldened unions could push back after years of wage restraint in Ontario
Premier Doug Ford's battle with Ontario education workers, and his climb down after attempting to impose a contract on them, could mean his government is in for painful contract talks with other unions and frayed relationships with key labour allies, say experts who study the union movement.
After weeks of brinksmanship between his government and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Ford moved last week to impose a contract on education workers. Ford's government preemptively invoked the notwithstanding clause in the legislation to force the contract on the union and effectively wipe away its bargaining rights.
But the move would not just have affected CUPE, it threatened to set a dangerous precedent for unions across Canada, labour experts say. It sparked a massive backlash from the labour movement amid vows of collective action like a general strike, and it drew condemnation across the country Ford backed down days later and has promised that his government will repeal the bill next week.
Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University, said the province's labour movement is like a "big family" with its own rivalries, tensions, and petty jealousies. But Ford's actions have pulled that community together and the impact could be felt for months, and potentially years, to come, he said.
"He's given renewed confidence to unions, that they can actually stand up and fight back and win," Savage said.
"And that is going to cause some troubles for the premier in future rounds of bargaining with nurses, teachers and other public sector workers."
Ford, who was re-elected with a large majority government this past spring, faces a series of high profile contract negotiations starting with Ontario's biggest teachers unions and continuing on with the health-care sector. Complicating those negotiations are high inflation, the rising cost of living, and the expiry of controversial wage restraint legislation passed by his government in 2019.
That law, Bill 124, capped many public sector worker wages at one per cent a year over a three-year period. Depending on when public sector unions struck their last deal with the Ontario government, the wage caps began to lift this year.
CUPE's success in getting Ford to back down could embolden union leaders who now find a renewed common cause in opposing his government, said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at Hamilton's McMaster University. For its part, the Ford government may have been trying to draw a line in the sand with the unions ahead of the long line of coming talks, and failed, she said.
"I don't think that the government is easily going to be able to turn down the heat on this, because all of these workers have legitimate and well-founded reasons for wanting and needing wage increases," she said.
She pointed to the government's own fiscal situation, which has greatly improved over the past few years. With a budget surplus of $2.1 billion, saying it could be hard to convince Ontarians that the money isn't available for wage increases as inflation soars..
Workers 'pushing back,' CLC president says
Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said workers will demand pay increases because many in the public sector feel that Ford's government has used Bill 124 to balance Ontario's budget, in part, on their backs.
"To announce that they have such a giant surplus and to really just offer peanuts at the bargaining table is disgraceful," she said. "Workers are taking notice of that and they are pushing back. And the public should be too. We deserve good public services."
The conflict with CUPE may also have an impact on the careful work the Ford government has done to build support within organized labour itself. The premier and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton have spend years nurturing relationships with construction trade unions, which resulted in some high profile endorsements during the spring election campaign.
LISTEN | CBC Radio's Metro Morning spoke with labour expert Larry Savage about the situation:
Ford often points to his rapport with the Labourers International Union of North America (LiUNA). But that union released a statement condemning his government's attempt to impose the contract on CUPE and invoke the notwithstanding clause.
Has Ford 'squandered' union support?
Ford's government has potentially "squandered" that good will with the construction trade unions, said Peggy Nash, a senior adviser at the Centre for Labour Management Relations at Toronto Metropolitan University.
"They represent a fairly small segment of the total labour movement, but I think that even these unions felt that if the government was willing to override the collective bargaining rights of one group, what's to stop them .. from acting in a similar fashion again?" said Nash, who is also a former NDP MP.
Ford himself downplayed the impact of the controversy on the relationship with his allies in the construction trades. They still align on a variety of issues, including his goal to build 1.5 million homes over the next decade, he said Tuesday.
"There's going to be things that we may disagree on," Ford said. "We'll probably agree on 98 per cent of the items that we put forward … So you know, folks, I don't want to fight. I just want the kids in school."
Savage said while the Progressive Conservatives endorsements from the construction trades were touted in the media during the election, they've never been reflective of broader support for the government from organized labour.
"I think this really demonstrates the limitations and the contradictions of the PC party labour charm offensive," he said. "You know, you can't be a champion for union workers if you're willing to proactively extinguish workers' fundamental rights and freedoms."
Bruske said the labour movement isn't monolithic, and each union goes about representing their workers in different ways. For some in the construction trades, that has meant building partnerships with the government of the day.
But this latest episode might erode trust, she said.
"This most recent, very egregious, introduction of Bill 28, I think, has given every union some pause," she said.
"It has given every union an opportunity to reflect and that may change how folks are supportive of this government in the future."