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Doug Ford government loses Bill 124 appeal in Ontario court

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s law that imposed wage restraint on public sector workers violated their collective bargaining rights and is unconstitutional, the province’s Appeal Court ruled Monday.

The law, known as Bill 124, capped salary increases for public sector workers to one per cent a year for three years.

A lower court struck it down as unconstitutional and the Appeal Court, in a 2-1 decision, largely upheld that decision, writing that the infringement couldn’t be justified.

“Because of the Act, organized public sector workers, many of whom are women, racialized and/or low-income earners, have lost the ability to negotiate for better compensation or even better work conditions that do not have a monetary value,” the court wrote in its majority opinion.

The Progressive Conservatives enacted the law, known as Bill 124, in 2019 as a way to help the government eliminate a deficit. The province had argued the law did not infringe constitutional rights, saying the charter only protects the process of bargaining, not the outcome.

The Appeal Court wrote that governments are entitled to try to hold compensation increases to a certain level, but the issue is how they do that.

“Ontario has not been able to explain why wage restraint could not have been achieved through good faith bargaining,” the court wrote.

“In the absence of any evidence for the need for expediency or that the same goal cannot be achieved through collective bargaining, it is hard to understand on what basis the Act’s salutary effects outweigh its beneficial effects.”

The law sparked widespread outrage among labour groups and opposition parties, with its effects on the health sector a particular focus, as critics say it’s partly responsible for driving nurses out of the profession or into private nursing agencies, where the pay is substantially higher for the same work.

Two unions representing health-care workers said in a joint statement Monday that it is a win for hardworking families and all unions who fought to protect workers’ rights to freely bargain a collective agreement.

“We urge Doug Ford to end his attacks on the very people we need to fix Ontario’s worsening health-care system,” the presidents of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions and SEIU Healthcare wrote.

The union representing the province’s public elementary teachers said that the government never should have appealed the decision in the first place, as it “wasted” taxpayer dollars and undermined their recent contract negotiations.

“Let the court’s ruling be a lesson for the Ford government to never circumvent bargaining or trample on workers’ democratic rights again,” the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2024.

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