With all the delicacy of a sledgehammer, Doug Ford’s conservative government in Ontario has crafted an elegant solution to negotiating with public sector unions:
Instead, as a government, simply define what you want the contract to be, override any constitutional protections the union may have by using the ‘notwithstanding’ clause, and impose it on public sector employees. There’s no need to bargain at all, no need for arbitrators, and any protests can be met with severe legal consequences.
Contract Day. All the uncertainty around public sector bargaining reduced to a single announcement where the government tells you how much you’ll make, how long the current contract lasts, and the penalties for disagreeing with it.
This is why conservatives distrust government so much. They know what they’re willing to do if they get their hands on it.
Never mind what the merits of the Education Workers’ arguments may be. They wish to be paid a living wage; nothing new in that. Any fair-minded arbitrator would give them close to what they’re asking for, which is why the Ford government can’t risk leaving anything to chance.
Also, never mind why the Ford government is doing this. There are some quite plausible arguments being made to the effect that by underfunding education, Ford is setting the stage for its privatization. I would also argue that capitalists look at public sector pension funds with envy and avarice in their hearts.
What surprises me most right now is that the entire Ontario public sector isn’t on strike. After all, if Ford’s plan works here, it works everywhere. It eliminates all labour rights at once, with the stroke of a pen. Maybe the unions are waiting to hear from the Labour Relations Board. I don’t know.
There are wider reasons why Canadians should be concerned about this move. It’s no coincidence that this tactic is being tried against the weakest and most poorly paid public sector employees. The conservatives want it to work, before they move against harder targets. But this isn’t just about labour rights – they’re just the lowest hanging fruit.
Think of our other rights. Freedom of religion, say. What would prevent a government from preemptively using the notwithstanding clause to prohibit the public practice of certain religions? We’ve seen partial bans of religious apparel in the past with prohibitions against such things as turbans or headscarves. Now displays of non-Christian religion could be blanket banned.
Or even the rights we have before our criminal justice system. The current Ford legislation provides for Draconian penalties that are far out of proportion for the putative offense. $4,000 a day for not showing up to work? It’s clear in this case that employees need protection from the law.
There are good reasons to ensure the supremacy of Parliament in a democratic society; there are too many examples worldwide of judges preventing elected representatives from doing their jobs. But there are also good reasons why fundamental human rights, derived and drafted through extensive constitutional negotiations among elected representatives from all levels of government, ought also to prevail.
The Ford government simply disregards that. It does away with human rights altogether. Its actions should not be allowed to stand.