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The defeat of Bill 124 is a victory for unions in their fight for fair wages.
Celebrations swept across Ontario’s labour movement after an Ontario court decision that struck down premier Doug Ford’s controversial wage restraint bill, Bill 124. Experts and labour leaders say that amidst a nursing shortage and under funding of schools, the decision provides vital protections for bargaining rights moving forward.
President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, JP Hornick, said that this decision has chipped away at the legislation that has manufactured crises for workers in Ontario.
“Justice Koehnen clearly spells out in the decision that the government had other ways to save money and chose to exercise unconstitutional legislation instead,” Hornick said. “The government is making it very, very clear what their priorities are for spending. Those priorities are not programs that benefit Ontarians.”
Bill 124, which was introduced and passed in 2019, capped compensation increases for public sector workers at one percent per year.
“The legislation did not just cap wage increases to one per cent. It kept total compensation changes to 1 per cent,” said Chris Rootham, a partner at Nelligan Law who co-teaches employment law at the University of Ottawa in an interview with rabble.ca. “That’s an important distinction because it affected more than just wages, it affected health benefits, it affected performance pay, it affected vacation, improvements and it affected other forms of days off. What the legislation did is it essentially said anything that has a cost associated with it is part of the one per cent.”
Rootham said that this cap forced employee representatives at the bargaining table to make some difficult decisions between benefits and wage increases in some cases. The 80-page decision points to a “chiling” example from the Service Employees International Union. In this example, the union negotiated for drug, dental and vision care in exchange for a zero per cent wage increase.
The decision also said that the government did not have sufficient reason for imposing the bill. Rootham said that he thinks this is a fair conclusion. He situated Bill 124 among other wage restraint legislation and said the Ontario bill was not formed under the same conditions as others.
“Restriction of collective bargaining rights historically in Canada has been a response to a crisis of some sort,” Rootham explained. “Federally, there was one as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. There was another one in the early 1990s as a response to a more legitimate fiscal crisis. In this case, when the government introduced this in 2019, there was no economic crisis. There was no fiscal crisis at that point. It was a’ we want to do this and therefore we’re going to’ circumstance.”
The bill, introduced at a time that did not provide much justification for wage restraint legislation, has also been blamed for exacerbating labour shortages in the healthcare sector.
“Bill 124 capped public sector compensation at one per cent, at a time when inflation is higher than it has been in forty years,” Said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL). “It has had a devastating impact on all frontline workers and especially on the longstanding staffing crisis in Ontario’s health care system. By suppressing wages and limiting or denying frontline workers the supports they need to do their jobs without burning out or becoming completely demoralized, the Ford government made a terrible situation even worse with Bill 124.”
Limitations have also created difficulties in the education sector. Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) recently endured a rocky bargaining process with the government where wage increases and funding for other services were a big concern.
In a press release, CUPE Ontario said that investing in good jobs for education workers will improve services for students and close equity gaps in education. Despite this, Ford continued to underfund schools.
“It’s outrageous that there was yet another report that showed the financial accountability officer saying they underspent by $3.5 billion,” said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario. “That’s money dedicated to services we all rely on that the government has refused to spend.”
Amidst these difficulties in public sector workplaces, the decision on Bill 124 may force Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives to read the room, according to Hahn.
As public sector unions continue to push for fair deals amidst rising inflation, this decision has set out clear rules that the government must play by, according to professor Sara Slinn, associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
Professor Slinn highlighted that coming out of the pandemic, governments may be facing some significant financial restraints which may make using legislation to avoid bargaining and strikes an enticing option. But this decision demonstrates that this option is no longer available to governments.
“Governments are going to have to be more careful about imposing wage control legislation,” professor Slinn said. “Now that we’ve got a pattern of strong decisions, finding quite substantial charter protection with respect to and therefore some significant limits on the government’s ability to impose wage control legislation.”
The Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (OSSTF) are currently in bargaining. This news has created better opportunities for fair deals.
Karen Littlewood, president of OSSTF, received the news while she was at a Sheraton Hotel for bargaining. She said she feels encouraged to know that bargaining will continue to happen at the table and not in the legislature.
“You can bargain back and forth,” said Littlewood, “but when you both end up in a place where you’re maybe not so thrilled with the deal, you can’t go ahead and say ‘I’m going to legislate a deal.’ This is not the way that we should be bargaining.”
Professor Slinn said it’s hard to predict anything concrete that may happen so soon, especially with the government’s intention to appeal the decision. However, professor Slinn said that if any unions had bargained reopener clauses in their agreements while the challenge to Bill 124 was ongoing, preliminary discussion on reopening bargaining may start soon.
This decision came on the heels of CUPE Ontario’s victory against Bill 28 which attempted to legislate education workers into a collective agreement. These recent victories have reinvigorated the labour movement.
“This was a moment where we had to decide this is the line in the sand,” said Fred Hahn from CUPE Ontario. “I was enormously proud to be part of the labor movement. When people made that decision.”