Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday November 2, 2022
Ontario government’s wrecking ball negotiating tactic not an answer
Prior to the last province-wide crisis in education, Mike Harris government education minister John Snobelen promised to make changes in Ontario’s education policy by “creating a crisis.”
Sadly, it looks like Doug Ford and his education minister, Stephen Lecce, are planning to do the same thing. This week, rather than continuing bargaining with Canadian Union of Public Employees education workers, the province passed a back-to-work law before a job action could begin, imposed an non-negotiated contract arbitrarily, and promised to use the notwithstanding clause of Canada’s constitution to fend off any legal challenges.
Why? Lecce says it is in response to CUPE’s having given strike notice that job action could — not would — start as early as this Friday. The sledgehammer approach is needed to guarantee “stability” in education, says Lecce.
That’s a red herring. In the event of job action, Hamilton public schools will remain open. In Halton, schools will move to alternative scheduling to allow for adequate cleaning. And the Hamilton Catholic board has said it would close schools.
Clearly, denying collective bargaining to education assistants, custodians, early childhood educators and office staff wasn’t destined to close all schools as Lecce claims. So just what is the government’s agenda? Will it do the same when crunch-time comes while bargaining with teachers? Does the government intend to take away bargaining rights from all education workers?
CUPE education workers, 70 per cent of whom are women, are the lowest paid in the school system. On average, they earn $39,000 a year. With inflation, they have seen real wage reduction of more than 10 per cent. CUPE is seeking 11.7 per cent increases.
We’re not judging whether that increase is justified or not, or whether the province’s offer, closer to 1 per cent, is remotely fair. That’s what negotiations are for, including mediation and ultimately arbitration.
But prematurely neutering the bargaining process by declaring any job action illegal is not fair, ethical or wise.
The last government that tried imposing a contract on education workers was the McGuinty Liberal government. In 2016, Justice Thomas Lederer of the Ontario Superior Court said of that imposition: “When reviewed in the context of the Charter and the rights it provides, it becomes apparent that the process engaged in was fundamentally flawed. It could not, by its design, provide meaningful collective bargaining.”
The Ford government clearly anticipated a similar finding, and is already prepared to use the notwithstanding clause — the constitution’s nuclear option — to ignore any legal ruling. That is an abuse of the intention of the clause.
Consider the words of federal Justice Minister David Lametti, who is looking at how Ottawa could challenge the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause.
“It de facto means that people’s rights are being infringed and it’s being justified using the notwithstanding clause,” he said. “Using it pre-emptively is exceedingly problematic. It cuts off both political debate and judicial scrutiny.”
The fact that the province has already decided to use the nuclear option also suggests it knows full well it is violating the constitutional rights of education workers. Otherwise it wouldn’t need to rely on the notwithstanding clause prior to any adjudication. We should be concerned that our government is knowingly violating the rights of 55,000 Ontarians, including thousands in Hamilton and Halton.
No one wants schools closed. No one wants an education strike. But are we willing to accept accomplishing those objectives by force, taking a wrecking ball to the collective bargaining process?
If we are, we would be wise to ask ourselves: Who, and what, is next? (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)