The recent passing of legislation to force Ontario education workers to abandon a strike that they had not even yet started deserves to be opposed energetically. Ford, the Ontario premier, furthermore, justified the law practically by invoking the “notwithstanding” clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights. This clause involves the following:
The notwithstanding clause — or Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — gives provincial legislatures or Parliament the ability, through the passage of a law, to override certain portions of the charter for a five-year term. Effectively, it allows governments to pass pieces of legislation notwithstanding their potential violations of Charter rights.
The context of the legislation is the following:
The law involving the notwithstanding clause came after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government could not reach an agreement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The union has been seeking wage increases for the education workers, and indicated it would strike on Friday if an agreement was not met.
In response, Premier Doug Ford’s government pre-emptively passed a law that banned a strike, and set fines for violating the ban of up to $4,000 per employee per day — which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers — and up to $500,000 per day for the union.
CUPE has said it will fight the fines, and that its job actions will continue indefinitely.
The Progressive Conservative government included the notwithstanding clause in its legislation, saying it intends to use it to guard against constitutional challenges to its strike ban. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce justified its use by citing the need to keep students in school following a disruptive two-and-a-half years of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions.
Now, let me state explicitly that CUPE workers deserve unequivocal support for their actions of striking despite the legislation. I, for example, went to the picket-line rally on Friday, November 4, held at the Ontario legislative buildings in support of the strikers. The number of supporters was impressive; solidarity was both evident and necessary in the face of such reactionary laws.
However, should not the radical left, while supporting unequivocally the striking workers, use the occasion to open up discussions about the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements? Solidarity, yes, absolutely, but critical solidarity–not rubber-stampting solidarity–as if workers have no right to engage in criticism of what is being defended.
Thus, at the rally, J.P. Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), had this to say (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPhQ_mo3h84&list=LL):
Everyone from an equity-deserving group knows where this ends, and it’s not good for any of us. This is an attack on the very Constitution itself: our freedom of association, our freedom of expression. The reason that unions exist is to build worker power by allowing us to come together and bargain freely and fairly for better working conditions. Doug Ford might understand this, but he needs to know: When you punch down on a worker, you raise a movement.
Yes, when a government tries to take away the limited power of the collective-bargaing process and the resulting collective agreement, we should indeed fight back. But we should not idealize this so-called free collective-bargaining and the resulting collective agreement. This is what Hornick does–as do many other trade-union leaders. As if the existence of a collective-bargaining process somehow magically transforms working for an employer into a free life. Collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement limit the power of employers–but that is all. Look at a management rights clause to see what power management still has. Should it have such power? Does such power express the freedom of workers?
I will not repeat criticisms of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements–I have made such criticims of them in previous posts, including a relatively recent post criticiaing Hornick’s views (see May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part One: A Fair Contract).
What is interesting is how the so-called radical left have merely called for support for the strikers without addressing critically the standard of “free collective bargaining.” Thus, the Socialist Project Steering Committee did not provide any criticial distancing concerning the adequacy of “free collective bargaining” in addressing workers’ continued exploitation and oppression by employers (https://socialistproject.ca/2022/11/support-cupe-education-workers/). It simply calls for support:
They have received support from the Ontario Federation of Labour and a number of other unions, for a series of demonstrations, rallies and picketing. This is important and should be celebrated.
This though, is not enough. Successfully beating back Ford requires a response that must be built over time. Like the Ontario Days of Action in 1995 – a series of one day general strikes across the province, led by the OFL – there needs to be some form of wider strike action built over a relatively short period by other public and private sector unions. But this can’t happen by itself – it must be built.
How do we do this?
- As individuals and socialists, first and foremost, engage in all forms of support for the CUPE strikers. Join the protests, pickets and demonstrations. Talk to family, friends, neighbours and organize their collective participation.
- The provincial labour movement must create a collective strategy to build for and organize solidaristic strike actions, modelled on the one day general strikes of the Days of Action. But the infrastructure for this isn’t there yet. The union movement has to get itself into shape.
- OFL affiliates, Unifor and other non-affiliated unions, led by education and healthcare unions should organize educational sessions for all of their locals, explaining why challenging Ford’s actions and plans are essential for our rights as workers, and why they need to engage in these actions. They should include training on how to talk with co-workers, neighbours, parents and family. During the Days of Action, many workers who supported Harris were won over to these actions by the educational work organized through the OFL and spearheaded by key affiliate unions.
- Build similar educational campaigns in local communities of parents, students, healthcare workers, and families of patients and those in long term care facilities. Many parents are concerned about their kids’ education, but they are also aware of the cynical and cruel actions of the government. We have to win them over and engage them.
The labour and community networks need to come to the aid of the CUPE workers, and to keep the momentum going as it continues and what come after. This is not a battle that will end soon – regardless of what the government does in the next few days. Building against Ford and creating a fighting infrastructure of struggle and political understanding in the union movement, inspired by the CUPE fight will take longer, but it needs to happen.
The Socialist Project supports CUPE and all efforts to stand up to Ford and Lecce, and the economic interests behind them and the necessary and welcome campaigns to build further. •
Building towards solidarity is indeed needed–but to what end? “Free collective bargaining?” Or towards a socialist society–while also defending the freedom of workers to engage in collective bargaining? The Socialist Project Steering Committee does not even address the issue. Perhaps it believes that through such struggles, there will arise in the future a concern for challenging the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements. Such a future often never arrives since social reformists constantly push that issue to some vague future. When will the so-called left start questioning the sanctity of collective baragining and collective agreements (while simultaneously defending them as necessary defensive means in a prolonged struggle)?
It is much better to unite the aim of creating a socialist society with the aim of defending the limited power that we do have while not idealizing that limited power and ascribing “freedom” to such limited power–and not wait for some distant future to count on the creation of a socialist society.