Changing employment and labour laws in Ontario
The final report of the Changing Workplaces Review was released last week followed by the Ontario Liberal government announcing the measures and legislation it intends to pursue.
While the engagement process during the research stage of the report stirred a lot of interest from workers' advocate organizations and unions, the final report falls rather short of expectations. Instead of the authors putting forward any new ideas, the report strains to explain why the status quo is largely adequate and recommends tinkering with edge cases. After two years of study and community involvement, the report suggests more foot-dragging at the expense of Ontario’s works by calling for additional study on areas of serious concern – areas that even the authors admit need to be urgently addressed.
While it is no surprise that the final report is ideologically liberal in its timidity with none of the final recommendations designed to structurally change the power relationship between workers and capital, it is still disappointing. This is because it provides only limited ways that workers' advocates can push the Liberal government to engage in change.
The Citizens' Press has discussed many of the interesting ideas that were presented in the process:
- ideas for restructuring bargaining relationships; - workable solutions to sector-based bargaining; - increased intervention of the state in enforcing bargaining relationships; - enforcement of employment regulations where there is no union; - regulated structures within the workplace where no union exists; - allowing unions access to unorganized workplaces; - expanding independent worker organizations' role in non-union workplaces and protected forms of action and advocacy; - detailed arguments outlining card-check and even moving beyond card-check; and - building worker power and workplace democracy.
Unfortunately, the report reads as a caricature of how academics and government bureaucrats' think workers and their unions operate. There seems to be little understanding of the real world structure of workplaces that limit access to workers' rights under current law. The authors are convinced that workplace power relations can be brought into balance simply by tinkering with current employment standard laws.
It seems obvious that all moves towards strengthening employment standards and labour rights should be supported. However, the narrative around this report was that there is a fundamental shift in the nature of work happening. So, where are the recommendations that change the fundamental nature of employee-employer relations to deal with these changes in the workplace?
Even some of the “new” ideas presented are woefully inadequate. When it comes to basic union organizing – which is constantly expressed as the best outcome for precarious workers' to make gains – they underwhelm. Access to a list of workers after twenty per cent sign cards sounds good to the general public, but anyone who has been part of an organizing drive knows that the hardest part is getting from zero to ten per cent cards signed. And, while it is important to strengthen laws against the intimidation of workers during a drive, this is unlikely to reduce the power the employer has to influence the process by intimidating and punishing their employees.
The report provides quite unsophisticated positions in areas like voting, the enforcement of existing laws, and how employers who break these laws are treated. Electronic and internet voting is discussed without a single mention of the downsides. Enforcement is discussed as if hiring more enforcement officers will solve the issue of employees not being able to come forward with employment standards complaints. This despite multiple submissions clearly outlining the real-world limitation of both these approaches.
The Liberal government’s legislation is even more timid than the report. The most significant changes for workers outside of unions are on the minimum wage, equal pay, and scheduling. For workers covered by unions, positive moves include increased protections for workers during organizing campaigns. These changes should not be overlooked, as they will have a real and positive effect on people’s lives at the lower end of the spectrum. However, other changes are limited by the fine print and the reality of how the economy actually works (or rather does not work) for precarious workers.
While these changes should be welcomed and these reforms passed before the election, the work is not over for those fighting for progressive legislative reform.
For socialists, the campaign to support these changes should be paired with some focus on more fundamental programs that address the imbalance between workers and capital in the economy. We must continue to highlight that the state has a role to play in limiting the expansion of precarious work and expanding quality employment (not just limit how bad the economy gets). This is where the struggle must continue.