The cornerstone of the labour movement, and a right won through decades of bitter battles is the right to bargain freely and fairly. In fact, without it, unions would lose their essence and effectively be eliminated, which is exactly what the Conservatives want. Ford government’s trampling on this right is egregious, but the intrusion into the finer details of collective agreements is downright dangerous. This is what the erosion of democracy looks like.
Free collective bargaining, which includes strikes and lock-outs is a constitutionally protected right, and one that’s sacred to workers. Despite common misconceptions, the decision to strike is never taken lightly. The decision to strike is a democratic one, undertaken by union members who ultimately decide whether to go on strike- education workers gave their union a strong mandate to strike, putting everything on the line. Their actions show conviction, resolve, and above all, a willingness to demand what is earned and owed. Workers make decisions like these when they feel they have nothing left to lose.
One of the pillars of conservative philosophy is limited government involvement and intrusion into public life. But, you wouldn’t know that from their actions this week. The Ford government is taking pre-emptive actions, even before education workers have exercised their Charter-protected right to strike, to circumvent collective bargaining and defining terms of the collective agreement. The Keeping Students in Class Act would even trump the Human Rights Code, going so far as preventing the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and other bodies from determining whether a provision of the proposed legislation, or any action under the proposed legislation is constitutional or in conflict with the Human Rights Code.
The Conservatives are bulldozing through constitutional rights through this proposed Act, which states that once the government imposes the collective agreement, there is no opportunity to appeal, challenge, nor allow union members the democratic process to vote on that agreement. Simply put, the proposed legislation would give Ford’s government absolute power.
A collective agreement that awards 1.5-2.5% wage increases, against the backdrop of inflation of 6.9%, and increases in life necessities well above that, is an insult to workers. Why should workers who do one of the most important jobs in our society, be demeaned and subjected to working for poverty wages? Wages that require reliance on food banks and second and third jobs to make ends meet? But, more importantly, why is this government standing in the way of workers fighting for fair wages? Yet, conversely, this government has never stood in the way of facilitating major transfers of wealth from the public sector into private hands. Why are governments quick to react when workers threaten to strike, but not when workers are locked out for months on end?
During the last provincial election, the Ford government expounded ad nauseum that his government supports and fights for workers. Preventing free and fair collective bargaining says different. Events this week show clearly that when it’s time to stand up and be counted, the Ford government is willing to stand up, but only to trample on worker’s basic rights. If the Ford government truly wants to stand with workers, allow the parties to bargain a fair deal and ensure education workers are paid what they deserve. To thwart collective action of underpaid and vulnerable workers who are simply demanding to be paid wages that lift them out of poverty, is shameful.
Today it’s education workers who are the targets of this government, tomorrow, it could be any one of us. This is not a public, nor private sector issue, this is a working people’s issue. This is an issue of a government seeking to destroy unions, and give themselves absolute power. This is not just anti-labour, these actions run against the interest of the public, of our education system, of the very kids Ford’s government claims to be protecting. Yes, kids need to be back in school, but not like this, and not under these conditions.
This is a full frontal assault on all of us, and Ford government’s actions are a clear message to all working people. This is our message to Ford: We will not stand idly and watch our rights being taken away. A right that is the only way of fighting for our livelihoods. Be assured, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with education workers, or any worker under attack, either on the picket line or the protest line.
And in doing so, we’ve proven that solidarity will help us win, and resilience of working people will ensure we overcome every challenge, but only when we stand united. Ford knew he couldn’t win this fight, and has backed down. But, he should know that we are on the sidelines, watching, and mobilized to take on another fight, if necessary.
Workers united will never be defeated.