#onpoli newsletter: Ontario’s tricky relationships labour unions

Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath discuss the province’s labour-union affairs — why some relationships are better than others
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Sep 08, 2020
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and OPSEU president Warren "Smokey" Thomas (CP/OPSEU)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

Premier Doug Ford’s relationship with Ontario’s education unions has been tense, to say the least. As kids head back to school, those relationships are once again in the spotlight. But for the province, not every labour-union exchange is this thorny. In fact, some are downright positive. 

In this week’s #onpoli newsletter, podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath discuss the province’s labour-union affairs — why some relationships are better than others, and how these exchanges shape not only priorities, but also policy. 

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ 

Steve Paikin: Well, JMM, yesterday being Labour Day, it probably makes sense to check in on the various labour unions that the government frequently deals with and see just how well everyone is getting along these days. Two initial observations: First, it does surprise me how well Doug Ford seems to be getting along with perhaps the most militant, outspoken labour leader in the province, Warren "Smokey" Thomas from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. We've often heard the premier use his favourite compliment ("Smokey, you're a real champion!”) to describe him. That's unusual, because Thomas has been the bane of every premier's existence for more than 13 years. Second, and conversely, add Ford to the list of names of every other premier over the past 45 years who's now at loggerheads with the education unions, as both the government and the teachers purport to better represent the interests and aspirations of parents, students, principals, and, yes, even teachers. This is obviously hugely important, as we consider how to send 2 million students back to school safely next week. How are you reading labour's relationship with the government these days?

John Michael McGrath: Are we allowed to invoke Dickens? I know “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is a bit overdone, but there really are two different stories happening with the current government and organized labour. On the one hand, you’ve got the teachers' unions. As you say, not the first time the Ontario government of the day has found itself at loggerheads with them, and likely not the last. But the current status is novel, at least in the sense that you’ve got the teachers' unions not just going to court to protect their collective-bargaining rights (something they are doing and have done in the past) but are now bringing the government to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on the grounds that going back to school under the current conditions isn’t just unfair but also unsafe. Other unions in the public sector, including nurses and others in health care, have also had some substantial complaints about the government’s conduct during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the premier got a friendly reception last week at an event in Hamilton that included private-sector construction unions, some of which (notably LiUNA) worked hard to defeat the Liberals in the last election. Maybe not a tale of two cities, but definitely more than one voice in the province’s labour movement these days.

A notable exception

Man standing in front of Queen's Park
OSSTF president Harvey Bischof at Queen's Park .

Steve: Indeed. I do want to return to the education sector for a moment, because it's been the notable exception to the premier's charm offensive. In fact, during the premier's daily briefings, he's made a point of going out of his way to compliment other union leaders. But for the teachers’-union heads, it's been quite the contrary. He's begged them to give his plan a chance. He's been able to improve his plan thanks to some alterations he's made, plus a nice surprise gift of several hundred million dollars from his new best friend, Justin Trudeau. But the teacher union leaders are hearing different from their members and remain adamant that putting 30 kids in a single classroom, with precious little opportunity for physical distancing, is asking for trouble. I know it's trite to say we'll know soon enough who's right, but the fact is, we'll know soon enough who's right. Schools are already starting back and if we start getting multiple exponential cases of COVID-19, the elementary and secondary teacher union heads are going to deliver the biggest "I told you so" in Ontario history.  

John Michael: No accident, then, that the Liberals and their still-newish leader Steven Del Duca are soliciting the views of teachers and parents with a new website this week, which (incidentally, I’m sure) will share their email addresses with the Ontario Liberal Party come fundraising time. The Liberals prospered politically over more than a decade when the teachers’ unions were their strong supporters, and Del Duca may need their help more even than McGuinty or Wynne ever did, because of a somewhat obscure little chapter in the 2018 election. I explained it at TVO.org shortly after Del Duca won the leadership race earlier this year, but the short version is that the final Liberal budget contained a section that hurt LiUNA, and they’ve always blamed Del Duca for it. When you add the bridges Ford is trying to build with construction unions — made easier by his transit- and infrastructure-building ambitions, which will necessarily employ many construction workers — it’s not hard to put together a story where the Tories are able to eat away at what was once a key Liberal constituency. 

Steve: And let's not forget the New Democratic Party also hugely depends on these union members and their leadership for "boots on the ground" support during election campaigns. I don't like to press these historic comparisons too far, but I do remember back in the days when Bill Davis was premier (1971–85), union leaders very much publicly supported the NDP but the membership would vote Tory more than you'd think. As their incomes grew, they suddenly became concerned about income tax rates and the like. It all led up to Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution in 1995, when the PCs actually won the riding of Oshawa — all the proof you needed that well-paid auto workers may have paid lip service to the social-justice issues of the NDP but voted for their personal pocket books and the tax cuts offered by Harris. Anyway, back to today — it's all shaping up as a very competitive four-way fight between all the parties represented at Queen's Park to see who gets the lion's share of the organized-labour vote. Hope everyone had a happy Labour Day weekend, and now it's full speed ahead into autumn.

Just a reminder...

The #onpoli podcast is back this week with a brand new episode looking ahead at what’s to come as MPPs return to Queen’s Park. A cabinet shuffle? Prorogation? The way things are going these days, who knows!

Have thoughts on the show? Tell us what you think at onpolitics@tvo.org

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