The Ford Government’s promised repeal of Bill 28 (The Keeping Students in School Act) illustrates the German military strategist von Moltke’s maxim that no strategic plan survives contact with the enemy. I think the Ford Government actually had a strategic plan for labour relations in the schools and I will outline it. Then I’ll summarize why the plan failed and discuss the implications for the Ford Government and public sector workers.
From Ads to Laws
The Ford Government launched its Plan to Catch Up for the 2022-2023 school year in mid-summer with a major advertising campaign. I often saw its ad on television news and baseball games, and I’m sure it was broadcast elsewhere. I haven’t been able to find the ad online, but I did find this clip on the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Facebook page. The starring actor is the embodiment of youthful enthusiasm any instructor would like to have in their classroom.
The Government knew that educational sector strikes were possible if not likely in the fall, so a feel-good ad about enthusiastic students returning to school would be a way of building public support for its bargaining position. Put differently, if education worker or teacher strikes were not a possibility, would the Government have needed an ad campaign?
When CUPE announced that it was in a strike position, the Government responded overnight with the introduction of Bill 28 imposing a settlement and using the notwithstanding clause to prevent CUPE from striking. It began debating the bill at 5 the next morning. Bill 28 is 61 pages long. It is inconceivable that it was drafted in an afternoon and evening. The Government must have had the bill ready and waiting.
Furthermore, it is common practice for both parties to keep negotiating after the union announces the date it will go on strike. That is often when negotiations are most intense and an eleventh-hour settlement is reached. That is not the type of settlement the Ford Government was looking for.
The Slogan and the Details
The Ford Government thinks in slogans, perhaps because Doug Ford thinks in slogans. In this case, the slogan was Keeping Students in Class. It was the title of the act, it was pasted on the podium when Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce spoke, and it was the core of all the Government’s messaging. Ford, in his populist parlance, tended to use “kids” rather than “students.” The Government’s objective – after the school closures during the pandemic – is to keep kids in class. To achieve its objective, educational workers and teachers must not be permitted to strike.
The Act imposed four-year annual wage increases of 2.5 percent for lower-paid and 1.5 percent for higher paid – if you consider a salary of $43,000 to be higher paid – workers. This is far below the current rate of inflation. Following three years of one percent salary increases that the Ford Government imposed on public sector workers, it means that CUPE workers will see their wages fall considerably behind inflation. How far behind? In 2021 inflation was 4.5 percent and this year it is 5.6 percent to the end of September. If you expect this year’s inflation rate to be 7 to 8 percent, and the rate in 2023 to be above the Bank of Canada’s long-term target of two percent, then CUPE workers will see their real wages decrease by 10 to 15 percent because of this imposed settlement.
The four-year term of the settlement carries on to August 31, 2026, conveniently after the 2026 election. So the Ford Government won’t have to negotiate with CUPE again in its current mandate. During an inflationary period, no union would ever agree to a four-year settlement.
The Ford Government has already limited third-party advertising before and during election campaigns, legislation to which it applied the notwithstanding clause. Thus, there would be limits on the extent CUPE could protest this treatment in the next election campaign.
The Ford Government must have been thinking that if it could stick CUPE with a four-year settlement in which the workers eat inflation, it could do the same with the other educational unions, and hopefully other public sector unions. Such agreements would bring labour peace until after the next election and would keep educational compensation for the government well below the rate of inflation. The money saved could be used for other priorities or for tax or fee cuts, such as the elimination of motor vehicle registration fees.
To summarize the strategy, the Ford Government had a clear well-advertised message to build public support and would enforce salary increases well below the rate of inflation with the hammer of banning strikes, enabled by the notwithstanding clause. And this happy situation – for it – would last into the next mandate.
Contact with the Enemy
As everyone knows, CUPE responded by going on strike anyway, calling it a political protest. During debates about the bill, Ford suggested that the union leaders were more militant than the membership and that the members should elect new leaders. The strong turnout showed Ford was wrong. Other unions, particularly teachers, supported the strike, and a general strike was planned for next week.
As a student of narrative and political messaging, what particularly interests me is that Ford’s opponents responded to the keep the kids in school narrative with two counter-narratives. The narrative that education workers deserve a decent wage implies that the Ford Government sees schools as little more than publicly-funded baby-sitting, and that to be effective schools must have staff who are decently-paid.
The narrative that our rights are in danger concerns the Ford Government’s frequent use of the notwithstanding clause, and raises the fear that his government, or any other, can take away any of our rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by using the notwithstanding clause. It is a classic slippery-slope argument, but that doesn’t lessen its force.
Back to the Bargaining Table
Let’s assume that Bill 28 is repealed and CUPE and the Ford Government reach an agreement. It will be more generous than the terms of Bill 28 and likely will be of shorter duration. The Ford Government will spin its about-face as an example of the populist politics of listening to the people. Doug Ford is a friend of working people after all.
The CUPE settlement will likely serve as a precedent for the teachers and for other public sector unions, and the Ford Government will be unable to achieve the big savings in employee compensation that it had hoped for. The Ontario Government is already running a surplus, so a share of it will pay for settlements that enable public sector workers to partially keep up with inflation.
Finally, the Ford Government will hope that this episode will be long forgotten by the 2026 election. It will be up to education workers and their unions to decide whether to forgive and forget or whether to remember the Ford Government’s strategy and hold it accountable.