Last Tuesday, the Ford government lost a legal challenge brought forward by a coalition of unions on the contentious Bill 124.
Bill 124, which enacted the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019, was brought forward by the Ontario Tories three years ago. The bill capped annual raises at one percent to ensure that public sector compensation did not negatively impact Ontario’s fiscal situation.
The legislation, which was set to expire at the end of this year, applied to over 700,000 public-sector workers in healthcare, education, crown agencies, long-term care homes, and children’s aid societies. At the time, the government stated that they implemented Bill 124 as a temporary solution as the province was under significant financial strain.
The bill has always faced controversy and opposition since being introduced. In an attempt to strike down the bill, a coalition of unions launched a lawsuit that argued that the bill infringed upon their Constitutional right to collectively bargain. Several unions also noted that this legislation discriminated against jobs with a predominantly female workforce which violated equality rights guaranteed under the Charter.
The case was heard for two weeks in September, and in a written decision released early last week, Ontario Superior Court Justice Markus Koehnen declared Bill 124 to be void and of no effect. His ruling noted that the legislation stripped workers of their Charter-protected right to collective bargaining and had a significant impact on workers’ living standards. Koehnen found that the government did not adequately justify why the legislation was needed. In his ruling he pointed to the government’s ability to provide financial relief to the broader public, in particular, the elimination of license plate sticker fees, stating that the province was not in a fiscal situation severe enough to necessitate the wage cap. Koehnen also highlighted that the province could have taken the position in collective bargaining that it would not be able to pay more than one percent in wage increases, but seemingly chose not to do so in order to avoid potential strikes.
The timing of the ruling is significant. Not only is it the second victory for public sector unions in the past few weeks, but it comes at a time when Ontario’s healthcare system is facing tremendous pressure. Many point to Bill 124 as the main reason for the nursing shortage and large-scale staffing vacancies at hospitals and long-term care facilities across the province.
Despite the leaders of the provincial NDP, Liberals, and Greens calling on the government to accept the court’s ruling, Premier Doug Ford has already indicated that they will appeal the decision. When asked about it this week, Ford specified that he would not use the notwithstanding clause, as his government did with CUPE just a few weeks ago.
Whatever happens on an appeal could have significant financial ramifications for the provincial treasury. A victory for the unions will mean that over 700,000 public sector workers will be eligible for back pay which is estimated to be worth $8.4 billion by Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer.
It remains to be seen how this situation will unfold, but in the meantime, public sector workers can relish in yet another victory.