TORONTO — A re-elected Liberal government would order striking York University workers back to the classroom, the party’s leader pledged Monday in what some experts called a desperate attempt to push a hot-button issue.
With unions throwing their support behind the New Democrats, Kathleen Wynne used a campaign stop to portray herself as a champion of the collective bargaining process — but also as someone willing to be pragmatic, unlike her NDP rival Andrea Horwath, by using back-to-work legislation.
Barry Kay, a professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier, said Wynne’s raising the issue now is a sign of panic as the June 7 election looms and polls show her party in third place — well behind the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives.
“The Liberals are scrambling,” Kay said. “She’s trying to save the furniture, she’s trying to do the best she can.”
At the same time, Kay called the back-to-work threat a wedge issue on which the New Democrats are vulnerable. Most voters probably aren’t all that enamoured with Horwath’s position against ever using such legislation, he said.
York’s unionized contract faculty and teaching assistants walked out March 5 over their demands for enhanced job security and funding. The dispute, which shows no signs of abating, has raised the spectre of disrupted student progress.
Wynne raised what she portrayed as Horwath’s intransigence on the issue during Sunday’s final televised leaders’ debate and returned to the theme on Monday. Horwath opposes such legislation for ideological reasons, Wynne said, regardless of who might get hurt in an intractable strike.
“When you give away that back-to-work tool, there is no way you can ever say no to unions at any point in the process,” Wynne said. “Andrea Horwath would empty the public purse and that’s the problem with being so rigid with your ideology that you get stuck.”
While New Democrats have traditionally enjoyed the support of organized labour, former NDP premier Bob Rae — who was in office from 1990 to 1995 — dealt a blow to that solidarity when he forced public-sector workers to take unpaid days in an effort to moderate ballooning government spending.
The white-collar end of labour — teachers in particular — nursed a grudge for years, and were instrumental in the success of the Liberals, who came to office in 2003 but who are now fighting for their lives.
“Pragmatism is enough to suggest the Liberals aren’t to be taken seriously by labour,” Kay said.
“The choice is between the Conservatives and the NDP.”
In what has been a polarized campaign, the Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford found common ground with the Wynne Liberals on the back-to-work issue.
“I believe in fair collective bargaining, but there’s a point where you have to stop it because it puts the people in jeopardy,” Ford said during Sunday’s debate. “You can just continue going on and on forever with a strike.”
Horwath was unrepentant for being the odd leader out on the issue. While strikes are bad for both workers and employers, Horwath said, tackling the causes of labour disputes is preferable to forcing an end to them.
“When you underfund colleges and universities, when you’re not paying attention to the everyday services that families need, that means that you’re creating work environments for those workers that create the conditions for negativity at the bargaining table,” Horwath said.
The Ontario Federation of Labour, which speaks for about one million Ontario workers belonging to 54 affiliated unions and calls itself a “formidable political voice,” has endorsed the NDP — a decision made at its convention in November.
“There has been a disconnect (with the NDP) from time to time, but those days are behind us,” said federation president Chris Buckley. “The NDP believes in the collective bargaining process.”
Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said several unions — firefighters and nurses among them — have opted to support the Liberals while some, such as the Labourers International, had expressed support for the Conservatives before Ford took over.
Mostly, he said, unions had “bad experiences” with the Liberals and so decided to back the NDP.