Bill 124 is gone but serious issues remain –  SSM Labour Council President

queens park

The Ford government’s contentious Bill 124 is off the books. 

The controversial bill, which capped annual wage increases of Ontario’s public sector workers at one per cent for a three-year period, was repealed by the province Friday through an order in council. It’s a cabinet-supported government order signed by the lieutenant-governor.

“It’s a win for workers that the bill has been repealed,” says Michele McCleave-Kennedy, President of the Sault District Labour Council. “It’ll certainly be a win for unionized workers who were held to one per cent raise over the pandemic. 

But it’s also a win for workers that are not unionized. Now the government has got a signal that they can’t push workers around and that they’re going to have to follow legislation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

There are 780,000 workers in the broader public sector across Ontario. Locally the exact number of workers isn’t known, but “it’s in the thousands” says McCleave-Kennedy.

“There’s 600 members in my local alone,” says McCleave-Kennedy, a member of Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF).

The Financial Accountability Office (FAO) says with Bill 124 overturned, the Ontario government is on the hook for $8.4 billion. Close to $1 billion has already been paid to workers who went to arbitration last summer to re-open their contracts. 

The impact for local public sector workers, McCleave-Kennedy says, will vary across different unions.

“It will vary union to union and local to local,” says McCleave-Kennedy. “It will depend on what they have in their contract language. Some people will have wage reopeners. Some people will have an ability to go back and renegotiate, but then some won’t.

What we’re looking at, at the Ontario Federation of Labour, and with a lot of the labour councils, is how do we make sure that all workers across the province get the remedy from (Bill) 124.”

McCleave-Kennedy added the scope for proper remedies extends to unions who may not have relevant provisions in their contract, as well as non-unionized public sector workers.

Bill 124, called the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, was enacted November 7, 2019. The province said the cap was necessary to help eliminate Ontario’s deficit.

While happy with the repeal of Bill 124, McCleave says workers are still miffed the government sought to save money off the backs of public sector workers and spent taxpayer money to do it.

“We haven’t had a decent raise in 10 years,” she says. “People are frustrated with the whole system. They’re extremely frustrated that he (Premier Ford) has gone after public sector workers. The majority of those workers are women, and the majority of them are not making huge wages. The average education worker that had issues with all of this locally, was making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. All of the support staff locally are making that amount of money.

“People are frustrated he (Ford) used taxpayer money to do something that was unconstitutional. Bill 115 did the same thing. Bill 115 took away our right to bargain and imposed a contract as well. It capped us to zero, at that time. When he lost in court the first time, he appealed it, with taxpayer money.”

Bill 115, known as the Putting Students First Act, was passed in September 2012, under the Liberal government and then-Premier Dalton McGuinty. It allowed the province to set down rules for school boards when negotiating with unions and impose a collective agreement. It also limited the legality of teachers’ unions and support staff to go on strike.

The bill was ruled unconstitutional by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on April 20, 2016 for its infringement of meaningful collective bargaining under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Remedies totalled $212.5 million.

The two bills served to place further stress on the public sector, already reeling from staff shortages brought on by retirement.

With increasing workloads and wages lagging behind inflation, workers are retiring early, leaving Canada to work in the U.S., or leaving the field altogether. 

A September 2022 FAO report stated the province will need 138,000 new workers in long-term care, home care and child care over the next five years. The report said increased wages may be needed in order to attract workers.

The cap on wage increases was hardly a magnet to attract new workers, says McCleave-Kennedy.

“The retention issue is certainly an issue, as is workload,” she says. “We can’t always get staff to cover. They’re not making the money they need to make and they’re working another job, part-time. People are called in and can’t come in because they have another job. People are exhausted, stretching to cover shortages, and it’s tough to bring new people in because the pay is so low.”

With Bill 124 repealed, McCleave-Kennedy says violence in the workplace is the number one issue facing public sector workers, today. She adds it has escalated to the point where the issue now rivals workers’ concerns with wages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *