The Ontario legislature has wrapped their five-week late summer session and the House is now recessed until October 25, following Ontario’s municipal elections, which take place October 24.
During the five-week session, the Ford Government was busy ensuring that some of their key government priorities passed through the legislative process quickly. It was a priority for the government to be seen as coming out of the gate swinging following the provincial election.
After first passing the Plan to Build Act to support the measures of their 2022 Budget, the government set their attention to the Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act to put more trust and power in municipalities by giving the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa more responsibility to deliver on shared provincial-municipal priorities, including the target of building 1.5 million new homes over the next 10 years.
The government also managed to pass their controversial, More Beds, Better Care Act, which grants hospitals across the province with the ability to transfer patients to a long-term care facility as they wait for a bed at the home of their choice. The move was cited by the government as being necessary to free up more hospital beds to help alleviate the increasing pressures on the healthcare system. The move from the province will see some patients moved to long-term care facilities 70 to 150 kilometers away depending on where they reside in Ontario. The bill has recently received additional negative attention following the release of the bill’s regulations last week, outlining that patients who refuse to be transferred will have to pay $400 a day to remain in the hospital.
While the House may now be recessed, the government will have their hands full as the negotiations between Ontario’s teachers’ unions continue to heat up. With negotiations brewing following the contracts of the five major education unions expiring at the end of August, the government has continued to be crafty with their messaging around any possible strikes.
The Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, has stated repeatedly that his government believes that students have a fundamental right to learn without any interruption. He has asked unions for assurance for parents that the school year for students won’t be disrupted and that all teachers and support staff remain focused on helping kids catch up.
The Minister has gone so far as to publish an op-ed in the Toronto Sun stating that, “We will stand up for your child’s right to learn, from September to June.” However, when pressed by the media, the Minister has not made a definitive statement if his government would bring their “right to learn” perspective into law by making education an essential service.
The government further reinforced their commitment to keeping students in school when they announced that Ontario would not have a provincial holiday to observe the Queen’s funeral, citing the opportunity to give students in classes a chance to learn about the contributions the Queen made to Ontario.
The very public narrative from the province has sparked frustration with teachers’ unions and has contributed to what has become a near-daily back and forth in the media by both parties. The unions accuse the government of pitting students’ rights against education workers’ rights while instilling fear in parents.
The Ontario School Boards Council of Unions (OSBCU), which represents 55,000 education support staff, are farthest along in their negotiations and have been the most transparent about their talks with the province. Members of OSBCU are set to hold a strike vote on September 23, possibly putting education support staff in a position to strike in October.
With their workers earning an average of $39,000 per year, the union has asked for a pay increase of $3.25 an hour each year over three years, which represents a 11.7 percent increase. With the province continuing its freeze on public-sector wage increases at one per cent a year, it countered OSBCU’s offer by suggesting workers earning less than $40,000 per year would see a two percent raise each year over four years and a 1.25 per cent annual increase for those earning more than $40,000. The counteroffer has been dismissed by the union, citing that it’s not enough for them to catch up to the rising cost of living. CUPE has shared that many education support workers have been forced to take on second jobs just to make ends meet. If the talks with CUPE are any indication of how the other negotiations with teachers’ unions will unfold, the province is in for months of heated and very public fights with over 255,000 teachers and support staff.
With the House in recess, the Ford government will escape heated exchanges with Opposition during Question Period. But the province will have to work overtime to manage the public’s discontent. While the Ford government’s narrative may keep some criticism at bay, the soaring cost of living is an undeniable reality that may garner the unions some sympathy, having seen only a one per cent pay increase while inflation sits at over 7.6 percent.