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CUPE Ontario members and supporters wave demonstrate outside of the Queen's Park Legislative Building in Toronto on Nov. 4, 2022.COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

Before Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced he would rescind his use of the notwithstanding clause to ban an education union from striking, labour leaders discussed a potential nationwide protest that would have temporarily shut down not just the province’s auto plants, but the country’s ports and even the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island.

In the end, the full-scale show of force never happened. It was called off last Monday after Mr. Ford and his Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, decided they would back down.

National union leaders say the goal of the potential protest was to go beyond supporting the Ontario education union, which represents 55,000 school caretakers, education assistants and other support workers. They had hoped to send a message to other governments across the country thinking of following Mr. Ford’s example and stripping public-sector workers of the right to strike.

Private-sector unions feared the same could be done to them if any future job action threatened key industries or infrastructure projects – potentially disturbing the uneasy balance of labour relations across the country.

The dispute kicked into high gear on Nov. 3, when the Ontario government passed legislation, Bill 28, which used Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, better known as the notwithstanding clause, to override the education union’s right to strike. A mediator had said the province and the union, an affiliate of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, were too far apart in their negotiations.

The bill also imposed a contract that included 2.5-per-cent annual wage hikes for workers earning less than $43,000, and 1.5-per-cent hikes for those earning more, much lower than the union’s demands.

Mr. Ford argued he had “no choice,” because the union had given its required five days notice of a legal strike. Ontario’s students had already suffered two years of pandemic-related learning disruptions, and the provincial government’s stated goal was to keep them in class.

But, the day after the bill was passed, the union walked out anyway, risking millions of dollars in fines for violating the law. Many schools shut down across the province, leaving parents scrambling.

Behind the scenes last weekend, more than 100 labour leaders from across Canada huddled in hours-long virtual conference calls to plan a wide-ranging response, said Mark Hancock, CUPE’s national president, who had flown to Toronto from his home in Coquitlam, B.C., to assist the education workers in their talks.

In addition to plans for a demonstration on Nov. 12 at Queen’s Park and a provincewide “political protest” on Nov. 14 that would have hit many parts of the economy, potentially including auto plants, union leaders from across Canada debated wider action, Mr. Hancock said. There was discussion about temporarily shutting down ports and perhaps the Confederation Bridge.

The concern was that, if Mr. Ford’s government went unchallenged, other provinces would follow suit, he said. The protest was also aimed at pushing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to use Ottawa’s rarely deployed power to disallow provincial legislation.

“We were going to be smart about it, and make sure that Canadians weren’t put at risk as a result of the actions,” Mr. Hancock said.

Karen Littlewood, the head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation – also now in contract talks with the provincial government – was in the conference calls. She urged other unions to step up.

“If we fought this alone as education [unions] and didn’t have a labour-wide and a province-wide and a nationwide response, it wasn’t going to be effective,” she told The Globe and Mail.

Lana Payne, president of Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union, said she was among the labour leaders communicating with Mr. Ford’s office, urging the government to back off. She also sent messages to Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who has been the face of the government’s outreach to organized labour.

Ms. Payne said she told the government that anxious workers, recovering from the pandemic and facing runaway inflation and rapidly rising interest rates, were not going to accept the erosion of collective bargaining rights.

“My message to the government was, this is a mood that you should not be testing with this kind of legislation right now, because the resistance will be much greater than what you have anticipated,” Ms. Payne said.

Unifor’s national executive endorsed the idea of “escalating actions leading up to and possibly including a general strike,” she said. Leaders of the union’s large auto workers division warned Mr. Ford in an open letter on Nov. 6 that they were “exploring all options” and would not “stand idle as you undermine the most fundamental rights.”

Ms. Payne called Bill 28 a “very big slippery slope.” She said it set an example that not only threatened other public-sector workers in Ontario and other provinces, but potentially those in the private sector as well.

Several private-sector unions, including the local wing of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, had endorsed Mr. Ford in this year’s provincial election. But even they were quick to scold the government for its use of the notwithstanding clause.

The wide coalition of unions, poised to announce their plans to fight back, did not learn the government was backing off until last Monday, when Mr. Ford promised to rescind the legislation and make an “improved offer” to settle the dispute.

David Doorey, an associate professor of work law at York University, said the reaction should have been easy to predict, given the potential for further use of the notwithstanding clause to upend the country’s model of labour relations.

“The Ford government’s strategy was naive in the extreme, lacking any understanding of the Canadian labour relations system,” he said.

Now, with Bill 28 set to be formally repealed this coming Monday and bargaining with CUPE continuing, the threat of labour Armageddon has receded. But tough talks with the province’s other education unions lay ahead.

And Mr. Ford has not ruled out another use of the notwithstanding clause, which he describes as a “tool,” despite condemnation from the Prime Minister and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. This week, Mr. Ford also denied that pressure from unions pushed him to change course, saying he made the decision to “cool the temperatures” and get children back to class.

David Tarrant, a former senior Ford aide who is now head of the Atlantic Canada office of the lobbying and strategic communications firm Enterprise Canada, said the Premier has shown before that he is not afraid to reverse course when a decision provokes an outcry – a rare trait among politicians. (At the height of the pandemic in April, 2021, Mr. Ford almost immediately reversed a wildly unpopular decision to grant police more powers and close playgrounds, for example.)

“One of Doug Ford’s endearing qualities, for better or for worse, is that he is fundamentally a pragmatic populist, and he doesn’t make decisions based out of rigid ideological convictions,” Mr. Tarrant said.

“While you can criticize him for that, it also makes it very easy for him to say, ‘Whoops, I didn’t anticipate this would be the reaction and we’re going to try to find an alternative way forward.’”

With a report from Dustin Cook

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