Why the Ford government could soon face a trial by fire

OPINION: For a government working to rebrand itself as kinder, gentler, and more reasonable, a teachers’ strike represents a very real risk
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 27, 2019
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks during an October press conference to announce a tentative deal reached with CUPE in Toronto. (Cole Burston/CP)

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Though it’s a bit early to begin rolling out the year-end retrospectives of the news, I want to flag something early. If you were to tally up the shortlist of headlines you would have least expected to see as we approach the end of 2019, I think “Doug Ford: Statesman,” would have a lock on second place. 

(First place, I think, would have to be the Justin Trudeau black/brownface stuff, but I digress.) 

I'm by nature somewhat cynical, and a career in media hasn't exactly helped with that. But I still find some of the recent news coverage of Premier Ford remarkable. In June of this year, the premier was completely besieged. He'd fired his chief of staff and was reaching out to a restive caucus, and there was open speculation that his own party might be on the brink of outright rebellion. Now he has new staff surrounding him — and recent coverage has focused on his commitment to shoring up national unity after a divisive and unsatisfying (for nearly all) federal-election campaign. It's a pretty thorough shift in less than five months. (And, lest this sound like a criticism of my colleagues, I freely admit that I've played a part in this: compare this column from early July to this one from just weeks ago.)

This is mostly a good thing, I think. Whatever one's views of Ford and the PCs, he is the premier, and they are the government — and will be for almost another three years. A more productive environment at the legislature, a more mature tone from the government, and a more disciplined leadership team around the premier are all things that Ontarians should be grateful for, if only because a stable and functional government serves all our interests. But there's still the matter of a trial by fire. The "new" Ford government, if we can call it that, hasn't really had one yet. That might be changing now.

Teachers across Ontario began work-to-rule this week. This isn't a work stoppage or strike, but teachers will be withdrawing some of their normally provided services until they have a new employment contract. The withdrawn services will minimize disruption in the classroom and won't really put much of a squeeze on parents. But it's a first shot in what could be a nasty battle between the powerful teachers' unions and a government that, despite its new attitude, still has considerable fiscal challenges that it has sworn to address. 

A year ago, Ford would almost certainly have waded into battle with the unions with a grin on his face. He may still need to fight that battle, but it's clear the government would prefer to avoid it, if possible. Earlier this fall, the government avoided massive disruption from school closures after it concluded a deal with the province's unionized educational support staff, without whom the schools cannot safely open or operate. That was one bullet dodged — through an extra $100 million in spending — but the next volley is coming the government's way now.

The government has already made some conciliatory moves. Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently announced that Ontario was prepared to dial back planned increases in class sizes for high-school students, for instance. But the unions were not won over, and the unions and government reportedly remain wide apart on many key issues. There's a very real possibility of a strike.

This is challenging for the Ford government. I’m on record as saying that the teachers’ unions should be careful not to overplay their hand. In the event of a strike, there's no guarantee that the teachers would win the public-relations war as parents and grandparents scramble to look after young children who ought to be in school. Going all the way is, even against Ford, a risky move for the teachers.

But for the Ford government, the risk is also very real. Yes, now that it’s made some concessions, it can insist that the line must be drawn here — this far, no further. It can let the teachers’ strike and hope that the public sides with it and supports the government's efforts to keep spending in check. But even if it’s successful in that — even if, after a weeks-long strike, public opinion turns against the unions — the government will still lose some of the progress it’s made rebranding itself as kinder, gentler, and more reasonable.

The unions know this, of course, just as the representatives for the support workers did. If you're a union negotiator, sitting across the table from a government desperate to avoid any additional bad press is an awfully nice place to be. The stakes are higher now, which gives both sides more reason to compromise but also ramps up the temptation to roll the dice and see what happens.

The start of the Christmas vacation is just weeks away. Perhaps negotiations will drag on into the new year. Time will tell. But things might be about to get interesting for Ontario's newly minted Premier Reasonable. And it's not too late for a few more surprising headlines to close out 2019.

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