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Doug Ford's Media Enablers
Pundits are echoing the Ontario premier's talking points, providing intellectual veneer for his anti-labour crusade.
While Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s revoking of education workers’ right to strike provoked rightful indignation within the labour movement, pundits in Canadian media — from the left-leaning Toronto Star to the increasingly far-right Toronto Sun, and both national newspapers — have lined up to defend his draconian legislation.
The Keeping Students in Class Act, imposes a new contract on the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents 55,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Ontario’s public, Catholic and francophone schools, including custodians, librarians, educational assistants and early childhood educators.
Ford did so by invoking the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause, which allows governments to violate certain rights within the Charter. Canada is the only constitutional democracy to have a mechanism in its Charter to allow governments to violate it at will.
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CUPE is asking for an 11.7% wage increase, or an additional $3.25 per hour, as well as at least half an hour prep time for workers’ whose jobs are in the classroom, more paid vacation, and to eliminate the pay grid so temporary and casual workers are paid the same as those who work full time.
Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is instead imposing a wage increase of 2.5% for workers who make less than $43,000 a year and 1.5% for those who earn more.
With the government’s refusal to bargain in good faith, CUPE decided to take job action anyway on Friday, Nov. 4, calling it a “political protest” rather than a strike, risking a harsh $4,000 penalty per individual who walks off the job.
On Monday, Ford announced he would reverse the use of the notwithstanding clause if CUPE ended its strike. The union obliged while threatening to strike again if negotiations went south, sacrificing the leverage it had built up over the past week.
While the union will likely get a better deal, Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause served its purpose by getting CUPE workers to back off job action.
It would have been much harder for Ford to pull this off without a coterie of bootlickers in Canadian media to provide justification for his policies.
The most prolific spreader of Ford’s disinformation is the Toronto Sun’s Brian Lilley, whose girlfriend Ivana Yelich is Ford’s communications director. Lilley’s shamelessness can’t be beat.
In a Nov. 5 column, Lilley writes that CUPE claims “everyone” in their bargaining unit makes $39,000 a year, which he declares “utterly false.” He spends the rest of his column expounding on the different wages different education workers make in different roles.
CUPE, of course, has never said all their workers make $39,000. It’s quite explicitly said they make $39,000 on average, and is asking to get rid of the pay grid. But Lilley doesn’t give a shit what the union is actually saying.
He writes that education funding has increased by $3 billion over the past four years, so what are the unions on about? For a guy who complains a lot about inflation, Lilley doesn’t seem to care much about its material impact on working people.
A couple days earlier, Lilley wrote that Ford’s abrogation of labour rights is the fault of an “activist” Supreme Court, which “invented and inserted” the right to strike into the Charter in a 2015 decision he claims “went too far in expanding rights according to the political will of judges.”
“Feeling that now is the time to give something a blessing isn’t exactly a legal argument,” writes esteemed legal scholar Brian Lilley.
On Halloween, Lilley wrote a column headlined “School union calls Ford gov't a bully while threatening strike to shut schools,” where he declares exercising the right to strike a “bully tactic.”
He called an 11.7% wage increase a “ridiculous ask,” since “it’s not something that can be replicated across the remaining four contracts with teachers’ unions that still need to be negotiated.” It’s unclear why he assumes teacher unions, whose members make a lot more than $39,000 on average, will be requesting a double-digit raise.
Lilley gives the game away in a Nov. 4 column, arguing CUPE’s labour action demonstrates the need for Ontario to adopt a U.S.-style voucher system, where parents are given money to spend on a private school of their choice, starving public schools of needed funds to improve educational outcomes.
He explicitly promotes this policy as a way to crush education unions, bemoaning how “our monopolistic education system hands over an awful lot of power to a few unions that seem to think they’re the ones in charge.”
The National Post’s Jesse Kline, who wrote a column last year on how public parks are a “waste of space” and an infringement on private property rights, had a predictably unhinged take on the CUPE strike.
A Nov. 3 piece headlined, “Unions as great of a threat to Ontario students as COVID lockdowns,” opens with a whopper of a lede: “If the virus didn’t get our kids, the unions will.”
Kline can’t decide whether it’s the risk of COVID, or the risk of lockdowns to halt its spread, that is comparable to the strike.
He says the threat of a “potentially deadly virus running roughshod through the population,” is on par with a “greedy public-sector union” demanding its workers make some semblance of a living wage.
Yet the overall thrust of his argument — naturally echoing the Ford government’s talking points — is we need to keep schools open because the past two years have been disrupted by lockdowns intended to halt the spread of COVID.
He accuses CUPE of “holding the province’s schoolchildren hostage” and encourages Ford’s government to “hold strong and finally send a message that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated.”
A Nov. 6 column from Chris Selley demonstrates the range of permissible debate in the right-wing Post.
While echoing Lilley’s view that the Supreme Court decision codifying the right to strike is arbitrary, Selley nonetheless takes issue with the optics of Ford using the notwithstanding clause so brazenly, arguing that it “hasn’t even done its job,” since CUPE opted to strike anyway.
“Media coverage is monolithically negative,” he said, apparently oblivious to any of his peers’ interventions on the topic.
In case one were wondering where Selley actually stands, he expressed distress that Unifor, the union he belongs to as a Post employee, offered $100,000 to CUPE to help pay fines for its wildcat strike.
“Not only does the union I unwillingly belong to take partisan stands, it's now using my dues to help CUPE break the law,” he tweeted.
Selley is, of course, free to run for a leadership position with Unifor on a pro-government platform. He blocked me within seconds of pointing this out to him.
Also on Twitter, Globe and Mail columnist Robyn Urback mused that parents will accept "a little trampling of rights” to keep their children in class.
She elaborated on her mind-reading abilities in a Nov. 1 column, arguing a silent majority of parents could be “content to see the Premier do all he can to keep kids in schools.” From the other side of her mouth, Urback acknowledges that unions and their allies are “justifiably disgusted” by Ford’s overreach.
Never mind that most parents are workers, who also might empathize with the aspirations of CUPE workers.
But, Urback emphasizes, workers “in all sectors are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living [and] most can’t even dream of an 11.7-per-cent raise (or even a 2.5-per-cent one).”
That perhaps these workers should also receive a raise is completely lost on this newspaper columnist, who I suspect makes more than any education worker could imagine.
Urback cites polling data on a lack of sympathy for job action from teacher’s unions in January 2013 and March 2020 — echoing Lilley’s conflation of teachers and education workers, whose jobs and wages are entirely distinct.
“Parents are in no mood for a strike, and the province knows it. Mr. Ford’s actions might have been seen as a massive overreach at any other time, but coming off a pandemic, it’s likely a political win,” Urback wrote.
Ford’s government has established a false dichotomy between keeping children in class and paying education workers a decent wage, which has gone straight from his mouth into the minds of Canadian pundits.
In the Toronto Star, columnist Martin Regg Cohn decried “Ford’s callousness” and “CUPE’s recklessness,” putting much more emphasis on the latter.
Cohn accused CUPE of a “bizarrely provocative” negotiation strategy, dismissing an 11.7% wage increase as a “non-starter.” He claims this has given Ford the pretext he was looking for to “come down hard” on unions.
“In this phoney war, CUPE kept baiting the government, knowing that Ford would one day call its bluff and ban a strike — saving the union from itself,” Cohn claimed.
Both sides are “fighting to the last student,” Cohn wrote, manufacturing a false equivalency that ignores which side of the dispute actually works with the students Cohn purports to be defending.
While we keep hearing a double-digit wage increase is a completely unreasonable request, the BC General Employees’ Union recently negotiated a 14% wage increase for 33,000 public-sector workers over three years after rejecting the government’s offer for an 11% increase.
In a Nov. 3 piece, Cohn doubled down on his confused bothsidesism:
Wherever your personal or ideological sympathies lie, both sides were playing with fire. More precisely, CUPE lit a match by calling a strike, and the premier pressed the nuclear button by suppressing the right to strike in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Despite arguing that CUPE instigated this dispute by demanding better wages and working conditions, he proceeds to argue the “greater guilt lies overwhelmingly” with Ford, backing away from the framing of his column four days earlier.
“If a union chooses to be reckless, a premier needs to rise above the fray. If a labour leader wants to be a martyr, an elected premier must be smarter,” Cohn wrote in one of the cringiest paragraphs I’ve ever read.
But two paragraphs later, he contends “CUPE has doubled down on disruptions.”
“That’s on CUPE, no matter how you cut it. But it’s also on the government,” Cohn wrote.
The fact that students will have another disrupted school year is “[s]eemingly forgotten in the rhetorical and tactical wars,” Cohn said, as if this weren’t the only thing the government, and its media apologists, have been talking about.
Edited by Scott Schmidt
This piece has been updated to reflect CUPE’s decision to end its job action on Nov. 7.