Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford launched the constitutional equivalent of a nuclear first strike on public-sector unions. And then, facing a predictable and equally extreme union counterstrike – public schools mostly closed; an economy-wide general strike on tap – he abruptly reversed course.
As one labour leader put it on Monday at a celebratory press conference, Mr. Ford “blinked.” He sure did. He offered what diplomats trying to end a war refer to as a return to the “status quo ante” – things as they were before the shooting started. The government promised to repeal the legislation that used the notwithstanding clause to impose a contract; the union representing 55,000 education workers agreed to end its strike so negotiations can resume.
Peace in our time? Not exactly.
The affair saw the government set one bad precedent, and then another, sowing the seeds of future conflict. The Ford government wanted to strengthen its hand and discourage public-sector unions from making excessive demands but last week’s escalation, and Monday’s retreat, have likely achieved the opposite.
This page has in the past criticized Mr. Ford’s flippant use of the notwithstanding clause, and we did again last week. There are strong arguments against employing the constitutional equivalent of the Emergencies Act to, for example, shrink Toronto City Council in the middle of an election, as Mr. Ford proposed four years ago. There are similar arguments against using it to impose a contract on education support workers.
But let’s put aside, for now, all legal, constitutional or moral questions. Consider only whether what the Ford government did was smart or not so smart; effective or counterproductive. Let’s talk practicalities.
If the goal was moderating the demands of public-sector unions, then the government’s strategy has failed – twice in the space of a week.
Governments – and taxpayers – have an interest in the size of the public-sector wage bill, because every dollar spent there is one that can’t be spent elsewhere. And governments currently have a particular interest in preventing a wage-price spiral, in which today’s rising prices spark demands for big pay raises locked in for years to come, feeding inflation.
The government of Ontario has every reason to aim for moderate wage increases for the 55,000 education support workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees. This first big postpandemic public-sector collective agreement sets a bar for all other negotiations.
But by short-circuiting those negotiations, and imposing a settlement via the notwithstanding clause, the government made things existential for the unions. It might as well have told them it planned to make them redundant.
This page has reservations about a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision that reversed previous jurisprudence and invented new constitutional rights for public-sector workers. But again: Leave the law out of this for a moment. Concentrate on the practicalities. The Ford government threatened to set a precedent that could eviscerate the bargaining power of all public-sector unions. That united the entire union movement. Could any thinking person – or any thinking government – have expected otherwise?
The Ford government fired a constitutional nuclear weapon. The unions responded by threatening an economic nuclear weapon. There was even talk that the Liberal federal government, which wants to get in good with both the NDP and public-sector unions, should consider activating its own doomsday machine, the power of disallowance.
And then the Ford government retreated and sued for peace. Schools will resume. A general strike – an economy-paralyzing work stoppage – appears to be off the table, for now. The government’s radical tactics meant that the only resolution was somebody giving in; the only surprise is that it’s the government that has done so.
The Ford government course reversal was necessary, but it comes with bad side effects. If the goal of this exercise was moderating public-sector wage demands, how does everything done so far achieve that? It does not.
The Ford government has instead weakened itself, undermined its own public support and energized its already emboldened public-sector unions to gun for big pay increases. All that, in just a week’s work at Queen’s Park.