Whether Ontario education workers threatening to go on strike as early as Friday were bluffing or not, it’s a moot point now. Taking no chances, the province this week quickly passed the Keeping Students in Class Act, which blocks strike action and imposes a new contract on workers.
Education workers would find little sympathy from the public if they’d walked out of work – something they’re still threatening, despite the new legislation – and will have trouble finding a shoulder to cry on now that the Ford government has invoked the notwithstanding clause to fast-track its bill.
As with labour unrest by teachers, the public has for years been unconvinced by public-sector union tactics, becoming increasingly hostile to disruptions. Now, having come through the nightmarish list of troubles related to the pandemic’s impact on the school system, parents will overwhelmingly support efforts to keep kids in the classroom.
Nor is the public going to feel much sympathy for education workers – the likes of custodians, educational assistants and early childhood educators – being rebuffed in a request for annual wage increases of 11.7 per cent. That’s well beyond the pale for most workers. In fact, even the government-imposed increase of 2.5% for employees earning less than $25.95 per hour, and 1.5 per cent for those earning more exceeds the raises many are likely to see, especially if a recession leads to job losses that impact only those in the private sector.
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As he has from the start, Ford can rely on support from a large swath of Ontarians in this fight. From the get-go, it’s no surprise the government has prompted unrest in the public-sector ranks, most notably among teachers.
It would come as no shock, then, if there are labour disruptions ahead. Ontarians aren’t unfamiliar with such things.
Unrest was common when last the Conservatives were in power. The Liberals arrived on the scene and began spending like sailors on shore leave, in large part to buy the votes of government workers and to avoid the optics of work stoppages. Eventually forced to confront their profligacy, the Liberals were immediately set upon by the same public-sector unions that had benefited handsomely.
Now, with the Conservatives back at the helm, the unions are on red alert. Strike action by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which includes those at the Waterloo Catholic District School Board, is indicative of that stance.
When it comes to the schools, there is a recognizable pattern: workers engage in skirmishes with the province and with their boards, the organizations that set the workaday agendas; parent councils struggle with extracurricular activities and the threat of work stoppages; and, as always, caught in the middle are students who suffer the consequences of decisions made by their elders.
Given the perception that spending is out of whack in the sector, coupled with the economic hard times for most Ontarians, public sentiment is clearly not with the unions. Parents are already fretting over what might happen if their children are used as pawns yet again. Expect the fallout from any potential disputes to tar the workers most of all, as they’d be the one responsible for school closures.
Blame also lies with the province. Job action by teachers and other civil servants that became the norm under the Mike Harris government got the band-aid treatment when the Liberals took over: some modicum of labour peace was achieved by throwing money at the situation. That path was treacherous. The funds came with no real accountability, so the education system got no better – some would argue it worsened – even as employees enriched themselves.
Really, the government should have set the terms right from the beginning, reigning in spending on costs not of benefit to the public – i.e. salaries and benefits – and focusing on classroom improvements instead.