'Ontario workers are justified in challenging similar draconian legislation here in Ontario'
Unions in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to make changes to Bill 124 after a Manitoba court deemed similar legislation as unconstitutional last week.
Passed in November 2019, Ontario’s Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act of 2019 limits salary increases to one per cent per year during three-year moderation periods “to ensure that increases in public sector compensation reflect the fiscal situation of the province, are consistent with the principles of responsible fiscal management and protect the sustainability of public services.”
In March, a coalition of Ontario unions, coordinated by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), filed a constitutional challenge to the bill, arguing that it violates collective bargaining rights enshrined in the freedom of association guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The coalition represented around 270,000 employees, according to OFL.
On June 12, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice McKelvey found that the provincial government’s Public Services Sustainability Act (Bill 28) interferes with the right to collective bargaining and violates the freedom of association guarantee in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“This court decision found that the Manitoba wage control legislation is a ‘draconian measure that inhibited and dramatically reduced’ the collective bargaining and associational rights of unionized public sector workers,” says Patty Coates, OFL president. “This is a major victory for working people in Manitoba, and an affirmation that Ontario workers are justified in challenging similar draconian legislation here in Ontario.”
“The Manitoba courts have upheld workers’ rights to meaningful and fair collective bargaining. I hope [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford is watching, and if he is smart, he will repeal Bill 124 before the Ontario courts rule against him.”
The Manitoba court also found that it is unfair to require public sector employees to shoulder the burden of the government’s own revenue reduction decisions, says Steven Barett, the coalition’s lead counsel and managing partner of Goldblatt Partners.
“This applies foursquare to the Ford government’s decisions to cut taxes and other revenue sources in Ontario, particularly given that Ontario already has the lowest social spending per capita of any province,” says Barett.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) is calling for an immediate exemption of its members from Bill 124.
“The Manitoba decision clearly shows that what ONA and other public sector unions have alleged in our own Charter challenges is true," says Vicki McKenna, ONA president. "Bill 124 interferes with Charter rights regarding free collective bargaining. It has widened the gender pay-equity gap and the impact on the morale of our dedicated RNs and health-care professionals, working under tremendously challenging circumstances during this pandemic, has been devastating.”
On May 29, the Ontario government altered the province’s Employment Standards Act (ESA) so that non-unionized employees temporarily laid-off due to COVID-19 would be deemed to be on Infectious Disease Emergency Leave. This change is being applied retroactive to March 1, 2020 and has no clear end date as the new rules will stay in effect until six weeks after the provincial state of emergency ends.
However, the OFL claimed that this amendment removes workers’ access to severance and termination pay, instead of increasing their protection as they struggle through the pandemic.