Much like in the U.S., the political pendulum has swung to the right evidenced by several Conservative governments having been elected across Canada. Canadian unions have known that hard battles are on the horizon. Regressive legislation, wage freezes and tough bargaining environments would become the norm, but the events of the week of November 4 were a full frontal attack marking monumental and unprecedented limitations on the right to bargain fairly and freely; a right that is not only sacred to labour, it is enshrined into the Canadian Constitution, and protected by the Human Rights Code.
One of the largest public sector unions entered bargaining with Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative provincial government for a group of lowest paid education workers, most of whom are women. These workers had faced wage freezes in previous collective agreements, many of them worked two or three jobs to make ends meet, many relied on foodbanks to feed their families, and most lived in poverty.
The province offered 1.5-2.5% wage increases against the backdrop of high inflation and rising costs of living; simply put, the offer was not only unacceptable, it was an insult. The union was in a legal position to strike, and having announced their plans, the province made a pre-emptive move that would prevent a strike. Their legislation would also impose a collective agreement that could not be overruled by any arbitrator, nor labour board. It went so far as to prevent the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and other bodies from determining whether a provision of the legislation, or any action is constitutional or in conflict with the Human Rights Code.
The legislation that was introduced and passed, would have set a dangerous precedent that impeded on fair and free collective bargaining, but perhaps more dangerous than anything, it would give the government absolute power. The government threatened that any worker out on strike would be fined $ 4,000 a day, while the union would be fined $500,000 per day. These were not just threats, these were fighting words.
In a mere 48 hours, unions along with central labour bodies (Labour Congress and Federations of labour) mobilized and organized protests across Ontario, and never shying away from a fight, the Machinists were the first to be there standing in solidarity.
The labour movement was on standby for a general strike; we could not sit idly by while everything we fought for was being taken away. We took it to the streets and we were ready to protest as long as it took to get a victory.
The show of might, unity and public support for unions worked; worker’s voices across the province spoke loudly- we were ready to fight, and we’d fight for as long as we had to, to protect one of our most sacred rights, the right to bargain, without this right, what is a union?
Tensions were high and the IAM along with other unions worked around the clock to build a strategy of protests, escalating actions and other tactics. In response to mounting pressure, the Premier blinked and promised to rescind the legislation and return to the table. One day of protests across Ontario with thousands of workers sending the Conservative government a message back, showed them, and reminded us, of the power of solidarity and organized labour. How powerful the union is and how effective workers are when we are organized- the sky is the limit when we’re united.
The week of November 7th was historic for many reasons, but we will remember it by our victory over a government hungry for absolute power and in absolute disdain of workers. The battle isn’t over, yet, but in this round of bargaining, the government knows, the labour movement is watching and is ready to strike again- in support of working people, and in defense of our rights.
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