Wynne looks to strike balance with proposed labour reforms
Premier Kathleen Wynne is set to unveil dramatic labour law reforms, including greater employee protections, a push toward a $15-an-hour minimum wage, more paid vacation time and measures to make it easier for workers to unionize. On Tuesday, Wynne and Labour Minister Kevin Flynn will launch the Liberal government’s formal response to the Changing Workplaces Review, which made 173 recommendations on improving job conditions for Ontarians.
Although the province will not immediately adopt all of the proposals from the 419-page review prepared by special advisers C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray, it will serve as the template for changes.
Sources say Wynne wants to strike a balance in the reforms — which will not be introduced in the legislature until the fall session — to ensure they are acceptable to both employees and employers.
“Ontario businesses have never been better at creating wealth, but ensuring those benefits are shared widely and fairly, that seems to be getting more difficult,” the premier said in a major speech last month in Hamilton.
“We must do more than simply protect people’s wages and their ability to earn a good living. We must work to create a fair economy that provides opportunity and security for everyone,” Wynne said.
“It means fair workplaces with decent benefits; workplaces where employers meet their obligations to their workers; and it means good pensions,” she said, noting she led the way in persuading other premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to boost the Canada Pension Plan.
“The changing nature of work is leaving some people vulnerable. They’re working contract to contract or they’re otherwise dealing with an unstable or precarious work situation. They can be let go with no warning as a result; some people can slip into poverty.”
To address that, the Liberals want to ensure that Ontario workers earn equal pay for equal work, regardless of their full-time, part-time or temporary employee status.
The aim is to encourage employers to hire permanent staff instead of relying upon contract workers. The government wants to end loopholes that enable companies to claim that de facto full-time workers are independent contractors to avoid paying them better wages and benefits.
Although the Liberals plan to reduce the barriers to unionization in many sectors, they are unlikely to ban replacement “scab” workers, as the NDP briefly did while in office a quarter-century ago.
The Changing Workplaces Review, released last Tuesday, recommended that, with some exceptions, farm workers, nannies and legal, dental, medical and architectural professionals be allowed to unionize.
It also suggested employees in fast food and retail outlets should be able to organize in “multi-employer bargaining” units to give workers at competing burger restaurants and chain stores more clout.
“If employers and franchisees in restaurants, retail, fast food and other specified sectors become part of a collective bargaining regime as single employers, this could lead to some natural expansion towards multi-employer sectoral bargaining in those areas,” the review said.
The labour minister strongly favours unions signing up members using card-based certification, which reduces the risk of workers being intimidated by their bosses into not joining a guild.
As part of a new Workplace Rights Act, the Liberals are also expected to expand minimum annual vacation from two weeks to three, increase the fines for employers who cheat workers out of their wages and set up a confidential tip line to report bad bosses.
Wynne’s reforms are the most significant in decades. In the early 1990s, NDP premier Bob Rae beefed up labour laws only to have his Progressive Conservative successor, Mike Harris, water them down.
Even though the Changing Workplaces Review did not call for a $15 hourly minimum wage, the province wants to gradually raise it to that from the current $11.40 beginning this year.
As part of a new Workplace Rights Act, the Liberals are also expected to expand minimum annual vacation from two weeks to three
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has long been calling for a $15 minimum wage and, with an election just over a year away, Wynne wants to shore up the Liberals’ left flank.
At the same time, the governing party wants to force PC Leader Patrick Brown to take a stand on labour reforms that are opposed by many business groups, including the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
In a break from his PC predecessors, Brown has been trying to steer the Tories to the political centre by courting some union leaders, but he may risk offending his party’s base if he embraces labour-friendly Liberal policies.
Tuesday’s announcement in Toronto comes in the final week of the legislative session before MPPs rise for the summer break and against the backdrop of Thursday’s byelection in Sault Ste. Marie.