Transit workers in Canada's largest city will lose their right to strike under proposed legislation that labour leaders say could open the door to declaring other public-sector jobs essential services.
The Ontario government introduced legislation on Tuesday, banning Toronto Transit Commission workers from ever walking off the job again. The government argues that a city the size of Toronto cannot afford to grind to a halt when the subways, streetcars and buses aren't running.
But the proposed legislation threatens to jeopardize the McGuinty government's good relations with unionized workers. Labour leaders said the legislation will create a rift between them and the governing Liberals, who are seeking a third term in next fall's provincial election. The leaders were also quick to equate Ontario with Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of workers have protested a proposed crackdown on public-sector unions.
In Ontario's case, however, the legislation is not about saving money - declaring the TTC an essential service is widely expected to cost the city more in the long run. Ontario Labour Minister Charles Sousa stressed that the legislation is expressly designed for the unique and critical role Canada's largest transit system plays in the lives of Torontonians.
"For the City of Toronto to lose the people-moving system relied on by 1.5 million on a normal business day," he said in the legislature, "it is much more than just an inconvenience. The impact of TTC service disruptions would send economic and environmental shock waves across this province."
This is the first time the McGuinty government has sought to strip unionized workers of their right to walk a picket line during its 7 ½ years in power. Labour leaders accused the government of doing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's "dirty work." It was Mr. Ford who asked the province to introduce the legislation, banning transit workers from striking.
The leader of the TTC's largest union condemned the legislation, calling Mr. Ford a "coward" for refusing to acknowledge that he's launched a broad attack on organized labour. But Bob Kinnear, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, said he will abide by an earlier promise not to strike or lead work-to-rule campaigns during ongoing contract talks with the city.
Other labour leaders drew comparisons between the McGuinty government and Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, who is proposing several measures to curb the clout of public-sector unions, including limiting collective bargaining to wages alone; allowing members to opt out of paying dues; and forcing automatic votes every year to see if workers still want to be unionized.
"It starts to look like part of this continent-wide attack on working people by governments," said John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, an umbrella organization representing nearly 200,000 workers. "You see what's happening in Wisconsin these days. It's just stunning."
But unlike Wisconsin's governor, Premier Dalton McGuinty hasn't demonstrated much appetite for confrontation with organized labour. Although he asked public-sector unions to voluntarily hold the line on wages for two years, he did not legislate a freeze.
Mr. McGuinty is also not taking on the transit unions to save money. Mr. Ford and city council asked for the legislation to spare Torontonians future transit strikes. In fact, TTC management recommended against an essential-services designation, fearing arbitrated settlements would be more costly. In a 2008 study, the C.D. Howe Institute estimated banning TTC strikes would add a $23-million salary premium to future three-year deals.
The legislation is destined for speedy passage into law, with second reading set for Thursday.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said he is concerned that other employers may try to seek similar legislation, barring their workers from striking.
"It's a little worrisome to me that they're cracking that door open a bit for other employer groups to try and get the same deal," he said.