Recently, I've devoted a lot of space to the escalating confrontation between the Ford government and Ontario's teachers. My interest in this situation is obvious. But, in the end, what sticks in my craw is the fact that, over the last twenty-five years -- a generation -- Ontario's so called Progressive Conservatives have learned nothing.
The Fordians have always wanted this confrontation. Martin Regg Cohn writes:
Intoxicated by their electoral victory, Doug Ford’s Tories placed themselves on a deliberate collision course with teachers last year. By declaring a legislated cap on wages, cuts to teaching jobs, bigger class sizes and mandatory online courses, the premier wasn’t just being proactive but provocative.
Instead of setting the table, the government upended it. Ford assumed he could get his way by simply proclaiming his bottom line, notwithstanding the picket line.
That’s not how labour relations works. Nor how politics plays out.
Things have gotten progressively worse. The government wants to move to arbitration. But it's not that easy:
The price you pay is that an arbitrator has the final say. As this government well knows, any arbitrator reviewing the current wage dispute would almost certainly find in favour of the teachers, who are being eminently reasonable this time.
Which is why the PCs are in no hurry to hand this one off if they could — but they can’t. In fact, it’s far too early in the process for the government to legislate teachers back to work even if they wanted to.
First, a government must show that the school year is in jeopardy, which is still a long way off after just a few days of missed classes (no matter how disruptive). Second, this government will have to defend itself against a legal challenge of its one per cent pay cap imposed on public-sector workers without any obvious economic emergency to justify it.
What’s interesting about this dispute is that the teachers aren’t asking for a big pay hike. They are asking for roughly two per cent to cover the rate of inflation, rather than accepting the de facto pay cut (falling one per cent behind the cost of living) that the government has ordered them to take. That’s below average private sector wage settlements of 2.1 per cent in Ontario.
That pay packet may sound generous — until you remember that the cost of living in Ontario’s biggest cities is among the highest in the country. Which is why our plumbers, doctors and others are also among the highest paid nationally.
To force pay restraint — or what amounts to a pay cut — on its employees, the employer must make a persuasive case that it can’t afford to pay more. For example, if revenues have tanked.
The Liberals tried that argument after the 2010 economic crisis and had the facts on their side, but still got overruled by the courts for riding roughshod over collective bargaining rights. Now in 2019, with Ford crowing over a growing economy, with revenues up and unemployment down, on what grounds does he demand that teachers make sacrifices?
Put simply, when it comes to education -- and labour relations -- the Fordians have learned nothing.
Image: The Toronto Star