On Nov. 7, the Ford government passed their long-expected Bill 124 which cements their 1% public sector wage cap. In a month where Ontario’s biggest teachers’ unions are deciding on whether to strike or not, now is the time to organize a fightback against this legislation.

Bill 124 affects a variety of public service workers, including ambulance drivers, hospital workers, teachers and more. It undemocratically infringes on the right to collective bargaining of workers, and unilaterally imposes wage caps.

In what sounds like an excerpt from George Orwell’s 1984, the Ford government outlined that the legislation’s purpose is “to ensure that increases in public sector compensation reflect the fiscal situation of the Province, are consistent with the principles of responsible fiscal management and protect the sustainability of public services.” In plain English this means that the Act, titled Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, is just another policy in a long line of cuts and austerity.

Response from labour unions

Shortly after Bill 124 passed into legislation, Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Chris Buckley said that, “Bill 124 is a direct attack on the collective bargaining rights of every worker in the province,” and that the OFL would be, “committed to fighting this Bill at every step, and we are reviewing all of our options—both political and legal—including the launch of a Charter challenge.” 

Buckley’s statement went on to say,

Hard-working public sector workers, and the communities in which they live and work are being forced to make sacrifices so that the government can give away benefits to the wealthy. At the same time, the PCs ignore obvious sources of revenue. For instance, this government is giving $3.8 billion in tax breaks to corporations, has lost $3 billion by cancelling cap-and-trade, and has forfeited $275 million in taxes from high-income earners.

This is a good comparison between the wealthy corporate elite and the workers. However the OFL, which represents 54 unions and 1 million workers in Ontario, has not clearly outlined any concrete action beyond a legal challenge which will take years with possibly no positive result.

In the midst of a potential strike involving over 150,000 teachers, four of Ontario’s main education unions (AEFO, ETFO, OECTA, OSSTF) issued a statement condemning the legislation. In the statement, they say that the legislation “tramples on collective bargaining rights and targets public sector workers with unfair austerity measures for the next three years. The legislation ensures that compensation for educators and other public sector workers will continue to fall behind the rate of inflation.” This is correct as Canada’s annual inflation rate is more than 2%, meaning the legislation promises an effective annual pay cut of 1% going forward every year. In Ontario, this comes in the context of rising poverty rates, food bank use, and already stagnating wages. 

Lesson from past struggles

The Ford government is a weak government. This has been proven over and over in the last few months, most recently by the concessions of the government at the hands of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) education workers. Ford halted many of his attacks against CUPE; however, it was not a total victory as the 1% wage cap was kept in place. The Conservatives would not have given up the cap without a strike and CUPE should have gone on strike to defeat it, which would have set a good example for the rest of Ontario’s workers. The failure to strike and defeat the 1% wage cap was a missed opportunity considering the context of Ford’s weakness and the proximity of the teachers’ negotiations.

This is not the first Conservative government in Ontario that has sought to attack workers en masse. In 1995, Mike Harris took office and immediately declared war on working-class people. One of the bills that he attempted to pass was Bill 136, which also attempted to infringe on the right to collective bargaining. The response of labour organizations such as CUPE resulted in an emergency OFL convention that passed an emergency resolution for a general strike against the wage cap. Rallies and marches were planned by the unions which resulted in a mass demonstration at Queen’s Park.

The Harris government blinked and withdrew the bill. Even the threat of an organized general strike caused them to shake in their boots. Of course, this did not stop the Harris cuts completely. It was one episode in a series-long wave of attacks, but it did highlight an important point: The working class when it is organized can defeat any cuts. Bill 124, which has shamefully passed into law, is no different.

Teachers must strike, OFL must prepare the general strike

In an April conference this past year, the OFL announced that they are willing to fight against Doug Ford, as we mentioned in our article at that time,

OFL President Chris Buckley opened the conference with a keynote address, making it clear that he “will not stand idly by” as Ford runs roughshod over working people in this province. Buckley emphasized that a key plank of the campaign will be building “rapid response networks” throughout Ontario, with the potential goal of “shutting the province down.” At another point, Buckley proudly asserted that, “we will take this government down”. OFL organizer Melissa Bayon followed Buckley at the podium, adding, “we have to do whatever it takes to win,” and that, “we can’t wait for the election,” in 2022 if we are to do so.

If the OFL leadership is going to stick to these statements, it is time to put them into action. Now is the time to organize a serious fight against Ford. What better time than when teachers are entering job action? Ontario teachers have just begun work-to-rule with strike action not far behind, at the same time as the OFL convention is meeting. The stars have aligned for Ontario’s labour leadership to take action. The OFL must announce a clear and concrete plan for a one-day general strike against the 1% pay cap and Ford’s weak government. This will bolster the chances of the teachers winning.

We cannot wait for the 2022 election or long drawn-out court challenges that will take years and lead nowhere. If this legislation goes unopposed, it will damage thousands of workers’ livelihoods for generations to come and set a precedent that Ford and future right-wing governments can run roughshod over Ontario workers. If Ford does not back down in the face of a teachers’ strike, a coordinated general strike must be ready to shut down the province until this law is defeated.