Lawyers for the Ford government have filed appeal papers with an Ontario court as they seek to reverse a decision that struck down controversial wage restraint legislation.
The Government of Ontario filed a notice of appeal with the Court of Appeal of Ontario over Bill 124 on Thursday, a month after a superior court judge ruled the legislation unconstitutional.
Bill 124, introduced in 2019, capped wage increases for hundreds of thousands at one per cent per year over a three-year period.
The court ruling that originally struck down the act estimated roughly 780,000 workers in the public sector were affected by the legislation.
The appeal asks for the Superior Court of Ontario ruling — and original applications made by a number of unions against the legislation — to be dismissed with costs.
Alternatively, it asks “that the appeal be allowed and the decision below varied to reflect the least intrusive remedy.”
On Nov. 29, an Ontario judge issued his decision on Bill 124, siding with groups representing several hundred thousand public sector employees who had challenged the constitutionality of the law in court.
A ruling by Justice Markus Koehnen said the law infringed on the rights to collective bargaining and freedom of association.
“I declare the Act to be … void and of no effect,” the ruling stated.
Koehnen found the cap of one per cent per year limited bargaining rights for workers and unions over salaries and other elements of contract negotiations for public sector workers.
“For example, it prevents unions from trading off salary demands against non-monetary benefits, prevents the collective bargaining process from addressing staff shortages, interferes with the usefulness of the right to strike, interferes with the independence of interest arbitration, and interferes with the power balance between employer and employees,” the ruling said.
“I find that these detrimental effects amount to substantial interference with collective bargaining both collectively and individually.”
In its appeal, the Ford government argued Koehnen’s ruling was incorrect for several reasons.
Government lawyers said it was wrong to say the bill limited unions’ ability to trade pay rises against other issues such as benefits in negotiations. They also argued it was wrong to say Bill 124 impacted workers’ ability to strike for pay increases above one per cent per year.
The judge “erred in preferring the evidence of Prof. Robert Hebdon (the Respondents’ expert witness on collective bargaining) over the evidence of Prof. Chris Riddell (the Appellants’ expert witness on collective bargaining),” the appeal added.
The Ontario Federation of Labour blasted the province’s decision to lodge its appeal against the ruling.
“Bill 124 has severely impacted workers’ living standards and worsened issues like the staffing crisis in our overburdened healthcare system,” Patty Coates, Ontario Federation of Labour President, said in a statement.
“Right now, the Ford government should be focused on taking meaningful action to address the simultaneous cost-of-living and health care crises in this province. Instead, they are choosing to spend public dollars to fight workers in court.”
The Ontario Nurses’ Association added its voice, saying it was “outraged.”
In its notice of appeal, the province said it was wrong for the ruling not to “accept the pressing and substantial objective” of the bill, which was to “moderate the rate of growth of compensation increases for public sector employees” to manage the province’s budget.
A report by the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAO) in September suggested a ruling against Bill 124 could cost the government billions.
The FAO’s projections estimated that a court defeat could cost the province $8.4 billion between 2022-23 and 2026-27.
That calculation assumes public sector workers who had already had wages capped by Bill 124 would be compensated, while the bill would not apply to future negotiations.
The report estimated a total of $2.1 billion could be due to public sector workers in retroactive payments if Bill 124 is overturned.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s attorney general confirmed the appeal had been lodged.
“As this matter remains before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” they said.