The skyrocketing cost of living has fueled a fight for higher wages across Canada. In Ontario, this struggle is intimately linked to Bill 124. Since its introduction by Premier Doug Ford in 2017, Bill 124 has frozen public sector wage increases to 1 per cent. As inflation has soared to almost 8 per cent, this has effectively imposed a 7 per cent wage cut for thousands of workers across the province. Bill 124 must be beaten; the question is how.
Wage erosion: slow impoverishment
One of the sectors most drastically affected by Bill 124 is the health sector. After decades of underfunding, the mismanaged government response to the pandemic pushed the healthcare system to the point of collapse. Nurses are forced to work extremely long hours, with many doing 20-hour work days with insufficient beds, supplies, or time off. While calling nurses heroes during the pandemic, the Ford government proceeded to cut their wages. Using Bill 124, Ford cut $1,500 from the salaries of 70,000 hospital workers. This has provoked a mass exodus of nurses and doctors, which in turn has further degraded the quality of healthcare.
Bill 124 has not only led to wage cuts, it has been used to undermine general demands for better working conditions. Earlier this year, the Ontario College Faculty attempted to negotiate reduced workloads with two additional minutes each week to grade papers. The College Employer Council refused to discuss this modest demand as a violation of Bill 124. The administration’s logic was that if workloads were reduced, college faculty would be doing less work for the same pay and this would essentially be equivalent to a wage increase. They conveniently ignored the fact that college workers often work overtime with no compensation.
Despite being called a public sector wage freeze, firefighters and police officers are exempt from the bill. The Ontario Nurses’ Association has pointed out the sexism implicit in this exemption. Firefighters and police officers are male-dominated roles, which have seen a 30 per cent wage increase over the last 12 years. In contrast, 90 per cent of nurses are female. They are frontline workers who face violence on the job and have risked their lives to provide necessary services during the pandemic, and they have seen only a 15 per cent wage increase over that same period. Much of the public sector facing wage suppression, such as teachers and social workers, consist of women workers. In attacking women workers, Bill 124 has lowered the wage bar for the majority of public sector workers. Not only that, it has attacked the fundamental rights of all workers to collectively fight for better working conditions. Bill 124 is union busting, plain and simple.
Learn from past struggles
With inflation expected to keep increasing, there is an urgent need to fight Bill 124. This is why, in response, a coalition of unions in Ontario has formed to challenge Bill 124. This coalition is fighting the bill through a court appeal, as the bill violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes collective bargaining rights.
But this is not the first time unions have turned to the courts to try to defend labour rights. It is therefore of vital importance that we revisit the lessons from these past attempts so that we can properly fight and defeat Bill 124 today. In 2018, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) went on strike, and the federal Trudeau Liberals attempted to break the strike with back-to-work legislation. In response, CUPW filed a court injunction against the legislation. To ensure validity for the injunction, the union paused all strike action. The injunction process dragged out the struggle over many months. Even if the injunction had succeeded, the demobilization of the picket lines massively weakened the strike overall. Active participation from rank and file CUPW members fizzled out. Without the mass pressure of pickets, the bosses had no reason to listen to the demands of the workers. In the end, the injunction did not pass and the union did not mobilize to defy the legislation, resulting in a tragic defeat of the strike. Currently, postal workers receive a meager two per cent annual wage increase. This is far below inflation and effectively an annual wage cut.
The legal system not only does little to protect workers’ rights, it is used actively against unions. In 2019, the Co-op Refinery Complex in Regina illegally broke their union contract and locked out the workers to force through a cut on pensions. Unifor Local 594 members courageously stood up against this attack and organized pickets outside the refinery. Within two weeks, the courts issued an injunction against the workers making the picket lines illegal and threatening the union with $100,000 in fines. The union boldly defied this injunction and maintained the picket lines. Co-op Refinery then found a friend in the provincial government that condemned the union and even showed support for local anti-worker groups who threatened to drive over the picketing workers. The company also received the support of the police, who helped scab labour continue making profits for the bosses, physically broke up the lines, and arrested Unifor leadership.
Do not rely on the capitalist courts
The entire state, from the courts to the police to the capitalist politicians gave their assistance to bosses in crushing the workers’ democratic rights to defend good union jobs. Past struggles have demonstrated the real nature of the state. The courts and the legal system are not neutral; they ultimately serve the capitalist class. The working class cannot rely on these capitalist courts to meet their needs. The real weapon in the hands of the workers is workplace action, stoppages, pickets, and strikes, which will put more pressure on the bosses than any appeal.
This is why the fight against Bill 124 cannot remain limited to the courts. If it does, we lose our greatest weapon in this struggle: mass mobilization. Without mass pressure, the legal system will drag out the struggle over many months, if not years. Meanwhile, thousands of public sector workers will continue facing wage cuts. To ensure this struggle is not simply filed away, unions must mobilize their membership immediately and plan for escalating labour action until Bill 124 is defeated.
There is a ripe opportunity to beat Bill 124 on the picket lines. Currently, 55,000 CUPE education workers are without a contract. The Ford government is offering one to two per cent wage increases (i.e. five to six per cent wage cuts). CUPE members, from custodians to educators, have expressed that this is totally unacceptable. They are demanding an eleven per cent wage increase. Thousands of workers with CUPE Local 4400 are also demanding Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) and catch-up clauses to ensure wages keep up with inflation. These are demands the entire working class can get behind. CUPE can spark the struggle to not only defeat Bill 124 but to gain living wages.
The Ford government has shown itself to be a servant of the capitalists and will put profits ahead of all else. In order to make Ford listen to the workers’ demands, the union leadership must prepare now for strike action. Preparation alone will send a message to Ford that the CUPE will not accept anything less than their demands. The whole of the labour movement must prepare to support CUPE and mobilize members for escalating action, from demonstrations to solidarity strikes, until Bill 124 is revoked. The CUPW defeat in 2019 exposed an important lesson: you cannot replace the pressure of the workers with negotiations between lawyers. Unions today must learn this lesson and prepare to defeat Bill 124 on the picket lines.