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Premier Doug Ford, seen here on Nov. 9, 2019, has exacerbated old antagonisms, and his government is the first in two decades to see all four teachers’ unions taking part in job actions at the same time.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

In any labour dispute involving government employees, the real battle is not over wages and working conditions, but for the hearts and minds of voters. In Ontario, the Ford government is losing that fight against the province’s teachers, and it has no one to blame but itself.

In a poll taken earlier this month, respondents sided with the teachers by a margin of nearly two to one, in spite of the fact that the largest union representing high-school teachers had already held two one-day strikes affecting hundreds of thousands of families, and members of all four Ontario teachers’ unions were working to rule and cutting back extra-curricular activities.

The poll by Ekos was carried out Jan. 15-19. A random sample of 634 Ontario residents aged 18 and over were asked whether they “mainly side” with the teachers’ unions or the government. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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Things could change, of course. The poll was taken before the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario began a series of rotating one-day strikes targeting different school boards last week. And next week, on Feb. 6, the 83,000 members of EFTO will hold a one-day province-wide walkout if no deal is reached by then. Other unions are planning similar actions next week.

Yet, for the moment, the bad guy is the Ford government, at least in the minds of a majority of Ontario adults.

That is a real blow to the Ford administration, which portrays itself as Ontario’s “government for the people." For the moment, the people seem to be on the side of one of the Progressive Conservatives’ natural enemies.

It’s too bad, because the teachers’ unions in Ontario had too cozy a relationship with the government when it was run by the Liberal Party. Until the practice was banned in 2017, unions were big funders of the Liberals; the party rewarded them with secret payments worth millions of dollars to cover the cost of their bargaining sessions with the government.

A less conflicted relationship would have been welcome, and in the interests of taxpayers. Instead, Premier Doug Ford has exacerbated old antagonisms, and his government is the first in two decades to see all four teachers’ unions taking part in job actions at the same time.

It’s easy to understand why the unions are so emboldened.

The Ford government came to power after 15 years of Liberal rule, with most voters willing to take a flyer on any colour other than red. But instead of proving to those voters that it would wield power with care, the Ford government spent its first year in office undermining its own credibility with ill-considered policies announced in haste, and then hastily walked back. Inconsistency has become the government’s chief trait.

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It preaches austerity, and yet it is spending millions to cancel contracts with green-energy companies, purely for ideological reasons. It promised to build light-transit rail in Hamilton, and then abruptly and coldly changed its mind. It vowed to cut funding to autism programs, to public health, to Legal Aid and to the Children’s Aid Society, and then partly or fully backed down under public pressure.

The Ford government’s decisions often appear improvised, and subject to change at a moment’s notice. It has not inspired confidence in its competence.

So when it comes to something as vital as education, the public for the moment seems prepared to live with labour disruptions, because the more credible party in the the teacher-government dispute is the unions.

The Ford administration’s consistent inconsistency makes it impossible to believe its claim that, in order to save on salaries, class sizes need to rise dramatically, and high-school students must take multiple online courses – two big issues for parents.

And the Ford contradictions just keep coming. The government has somehow found the money to offer parents up to $60 per day if their children’s school is closed by a strike. It has also moderated its plan to increase class sizes, and reduced the number of online courses high schoolers will have to take, ever since the unions started their job actions.

Nothing ever sticks with the Ford government. It says one thing, then does another. It has lost credibility and is bleeding support. And now it is attempting to negotiate important new contracts with powerful unions that smell blood. The public can smell it, too.

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