In a tweet published last week, Ontario’s Liberal Party called strikes “disruptive” and said that they “can become downright dangerous,” using this anti-union rhetoric as a shot against the province’s New Democratic Party. Text in a video included in the tweet read: “The NDP puts unions first. And the public second.”
These anti-worker comments and plug for back-to-work legislation are extremely troubling, even without the backdrop of the upcoming election. Though, coming from the party that violated the federal constitution in order to force Ontario teachers back to work in 2012, it’s no surprise.
Liberals history of attacking workers’ rights
What can easily be remembered as a messy dispute and ‘disruptive’ strike, is really an example of Ontario’s Liberal leadership mistreating public sector workers and violating their rights in the collective bargaining process.
When Liberals passed the insidiously named Putting Students First Act or Bill 115, they banned teachers from going on strike.
Though repealing the controversial Bill 115 was one of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s first moves when she became premier back in 2013, she herself voted for it under previous Premier Dalton McGuinty. The official statement released then said that in ditching Bill 115, ‘the government is promoting goodwill and stability in Ontario schools’. But the then Education Minister Laurel Broten announced a repeal at the same time as announcing that contracts freezing wages, reducing sick days and restricting the amount banked sick days that can be claimed in retirement, would be imposed on 130,000 Ontario teachers.
In sum, the province enacted legislation that prevented teachers from realizing their right to strike for higher wages just long enough for contracts freezing wages to be imposed, among other issues.
The unions retroactively challenged this and in 2016, Ontario Superior Court Judge Thomas Lederer ruled that the bill violated the constitutional rights of the workers involved.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath said at the time that “[The Liberals] willingly violated the Charter rights of educational workers in this province for political gain,” because the bill helped Liberals snatch a riding from the PCs in a byelection (though in the end that riding was won by NDP MPP Catherine Fife).
Party politics aside, this situation is demonstrative of the Liberal Party’s blatant disregard for the constitutional rights of all Canadians. Which makes their accusation that the NDP would put unions before the public almost ironic.
What voters need to consider before Thursday are the facts. The facts of our rights as workers and the labour movement that earned us those rights.
First, the right to strike is protected in our federal constitution. Officially determined by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining was declared in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, in which the SFL challenged the provincial Public Service Essential Services Act and Trade Union Amendment Act, which determined that some public sector workers are essential and therefore cannot strike.
The ruling reads: “The right to strike is essential to realizing [Charter] values and objectives through a collective bargaining process because it permits workers to withdraw their labour in concert when collective bargaining reaches an impasse. […] The ability to strike thereby allows workers, through collective action, to refuse to work under imposed terms and conditions. This collective action at the moment of impasse is an affirmation of the dignity and autonomy of employees in their working lives.”
Workers going on strike is the only reason we have any of the labour standards we enjoy today. Playing the ‘disruptive’ card is the easiest and laziest way to attack workers’ rights. Strikes are disruptive because by their very definition they are meant to disrupt the flow of profit to an employer to remind them how important workers are to their enterprise. But that’s not a bad thing.
Positioning strikes as if they hold the public hostage is a line that easily forgets that it is the public that goes on strike. It is everyday people and everyday workers, in a variety of industries, that have relied on strikes to demand everything from better wages to better health and safety standards to job security and much, much more. These are necessary protections that we all benefit from.
Strikes benefit all workers
It was the 1978 Fleck Strike that lead to 80 women working at an auto-wiring plant in London, Ontario getting higher wages, sexual harassment protections and being able to establish a union. From that point, the male-dominated United Auto Workers changed their bargaining platform to include issues like maternity leave, childcare support, and protection from sexual harassment which were all eventually eventually gained. Further still, the provincial government made the Rand formula a legal requirement in union contracts because of this dispute. One strike changed the Ontario labour movement, the women’s movement and labour law in Ontario.
It was a strike by low-wage food service workers on the York University campus in the winter of 2017 that lead to their starting wage being raised to $15 and working conditions being improved, including a change to contract language covering breaks and a fully covered-dental plan. Their victory is considered to have “helped set a new standard in the sector, paving the way for a big victory at the Roger’s Centre,” where workers are part of the same Local 75 of Unite Here. This labour victory is one of many actions as part of the province wide Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign which lead to the minimum wage being raised to $15 in Ontario.
Two strikes by workers at the Ontario Food Terminal in 2016 and 2017 have lead to agreements between workers and employers Fresh Produce and Ippolito. The workers who went on strike in 2016 were almost all Tibetan refugees, seeking a wage increase from Fresh Produce – their wages hadn’t moved in 14 years. Their victory encouraged Ippolito workers, also all Tibetan refugees, to unionize and strike the next year. Their 2017 victory has in turn improved the conditions of hundreds of non-unionized workers in the OFT, whose employers have elevated working conditions as a result of the Ippolito strike.
These are three examples amongst countless that show that strikes are not a ‘dangerous’ ‘tactic’ like they are sometimes referred to. Strikes are a necessary, effective and constitutionally protected strategy for workers advocating for their rights.
So it is true that strikes are disruptive. They are supposed to be. Withdrawing labour is one of few moves workers can use to level the playing field where the power is with the employer – and considering people need their jobs to survive and few are in a position to risk unemployment in pursuit of a different job – that is almost always. But throwing those willing to put themselves on the line – a literal picket line – for the rights of all workers, of all Ontarians and of all Canadians under the metaphoric bus for the purposes of attacking a political opponent is a true disruption to the process of political and civic progression within the province.
The labour movement cannot come before the public because it is the public. Strikes are not dangerous, but attacking workers is.