After one of its longest recesses in history, the provincial PC government will be back at work when the Legislature resumes on October 28th.
The PCs took many months off to rest and re-calibrate, and to allow the Federal election to unfold and take its course. The reality is that Premier Doug Ford has made a number of serious blunders and his personal popularity has taken a beating. Cuts to autism funding, clashes with Toronto’s municipal government, and a terribly received first budget all took their toll on a government that has now well passed its honeymoon with voters. Doug Ford’s personality popularity has reached lows which even Wynne surpassed at the height of the public’s fatigue and frustration with the previous Liberal government that ran Ontario for 15 years. In order to have a competitive shot at winning re-election in less than 3 years, Ford will have to do work assiduously to rebuild his standing with voters.
His first major challenge will be to respond to growing labour strife. Powerful public sector unions are gearing up for what many believe will be a protracted fight with the governing PCs. Relations between the party and the public sector unions, particularly teachers have been poor for over two decades, since the tumultuous Harris PC government of the late 90s and early 2000s. The unions’ relationship with former Premier Wynne did not end well and the previous Liberals engaged in varying forms of austerity to cut the province’s significant budget deficit. The last thing the pub. sector unions wanted was a PC Government led by Ford. While a deal was reached between education support workers represented by CUPE through the government pouring money into slightly higher wages and a maintenance of the workers’ sick leave plan, other unions may be harder to please. The OSSTF, which represents high school teachers is voicing increasingly battle-ready rhetoric on news that Ford wants to cut average class sizes from 22 students to 25 to save money. Strike votes are ongoing for high school and elementary teachers across Ontario.
The Ford Government would be wise to strike a balanced compromise with the unions if possible. A full strike of teachers would be extremely disruptive and would place pressure on stressed out parents who’s kids will stay home. Teachers unions have huge member lists, tons of money to fight a government, and have significant support among the public. Every Ontario Premier who took on the teachers eventually lost his or her job – Rae, Harris, Eves, McGuinty, and Wynne all had their disagreements with this powerful interest group. While the average Ontario teacher earns 90K a year, a healthy salary that many private sector workers will never achieve in their lives, teachers are also under constant scrutiny, have lost authority in their classrooms, and are dealing with a youth population addicted and distracted by smartphones, technology, and social media. A protracted fight between the unions and the government will deplete political capital and take attention away from other important issues, like housing, the economy, and middle class pressures.