The Ontario government is fast-tracking legislation to ban transit workers in Toronto from striking, setting what labour leaders say is a troubling precedent for any municipal mayor who wants to take on public-sector unions.
Proposed legislation banning Toronto Transit Commission workers from walking off the job will become law before the end of March, when collective bargaining agreements expire for many of TTC employees, said Labour Minister Charles Sousa.
"We're sensitive to those time lines," Mr. Sousa told reporters on Thursday. "We want to make certain that everyone's aware of the rules and how they apply by the end of the month."
Labour leaders accused the government of attacking the right of public-sector employees to use their collective power to seek better working conditions, and expressed concern about what the legislation could mean for municipal services across Ontario, including transit in other cities.
Premier Dalton McGuinty's government introduced the legislation last week at the request of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and after city council voted 28-17 in favour of making future strike action by transit workers illegal.
"I can see other mayors saying, 'If it's good enough for Toronto, why can't we have it?' " said Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour. "What he has set in motion is a whole bunch of mini Wisconsins."
Tens of thousands of workers in Wisconsin are protesting an attempt by the state's new Republican Governor, Scott Walker, to severely restrict the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions in an effort to reduce a projected $3.6-billion shortfall in the state budget.
Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza said the proposed legislation declaring the TTC an essential service sets a "terrible precedent" for future dealings with Toronto's mayor, who has made it clear he wants to "take on" the city's unions.
"If the province actually cares about labour peace," Mr. Lewenza said in a statement, "this is the worst way of going about it."
Opposition members criticized the government for failing to give adequate consideration to legislation that profoundly affects workers' rights.
"We've said all along they should not ram this through the legislature," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "Unfortunately, they've decided to do just that."
The governing Liberals used their majority to pass a time-allocation motion on Thursday over the objections of the New Democrats. Third and final reading on what is known as Bill 150 could take place as early as March 24 under the motion, which sets aside just seven hours for public hearings.
NDP MPP Peter Kormos said the government is wrong to declare the TTC an essential service. While it is inconvenient for commuters when the subways, buses and trains are not running, he said, their health and safety are not at risk.
"This is an outright prohibition on the right to strike, so it's unfair for this government to call this essential-services legislation," Mr. Kormos said. "It is not."
Greg Dennis, a spokesman for Mr. Sousa, countered that health and safety are very much factors when one considers that 1.5 million people use the TTC every day. "We all know that the fewer cars on the road, the cleaner our air is to breathe," he said in a statement. As well, he said, getting staff and ambulance patients to downtown hospitals could be a problem when the streets are clogged with thousands of extra vehicles during a transit strike.
Councillor Karen Stintz, chair of the TTC, said the legislation is a positive move for riders. "Our whole objective in asking for essential service [status]was to provide continuity of service and we'll be able to do that."
With a report from Kelly Grant