By David Robinson
There’s an old saying in the labour movement that a union’s best organizer is the employer. An employer’s missteps, miscalculations, and just general misbehaviour are often the most effective means of galvanizing workers together in common cause.
Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford learned that lesson the hard way earlier this month. Rather than trying to negotiate a mutually acceptable deal with CUPE Ontario’s 55,000 education workers, the Ford government instead hastily passed legislation that not only prohibited job action and imposed a four-year contract, but also took the unprecedented step of pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to suspend Charter rights. We’ve seen our share of anti-union legislation before, but never has the notwithstanding clause been used this way. It was not a secret the government knew the legislation was unconstitutional and simply cynically wanted to avoid the inconvenience of having the courts overturn it.
For organized labour, the government’s actions had the unintended consequence of rallying together unions that have not always been on the same page. CUPE defied the legislation and held protests and pickets across the province with thousands of other union members joining the lines. At a series of emergency meetings, both public and private sector unions agreed to provide financial support to CUPE’s members and to engage in a series of escalating actions, culminating with a general strike.
Meanwhile, polls showed most Ontarians sided with the education workers and were irate with the legislation’s suspension of Charter rights. This was a clear overreach and abuse of power by government that could have a devastating ripple effect across the country. If the Ontario government could get away with normalizing the use of the notwithstanding clause, then the basic rights and freedoms of all Canadians would be under threat.
Faced with the ominous prospect of a province-wide labour disruption and growing public opposition, Premier Ford was forced to climb down. The Orwellian sounding Keeping Students in Class Act would be repealed and deemed never to have been in force. CUPE would end its job action and the two sides returned to the bargaining table.
This was an important victory for organized labour, and not just in Ontario. Other provincial governments were clearly watching closely. On behalf of the National Union of CAUT (NUCAUT), I attended several videoconference meetings with labour leaders from across the country as the drama unfolded. CAUT associations who are not members of NUCAUT should be joining, because being part of the labour movement is critical if we are to protect our rights and working conditions. Not in my recent memory has labour been so united in common cause and been so ready to take the unprecedented actions to defend one another. Oddly enough, we have Doug Ford, labour organizer extraordinaire, to thank for this unity and activism.