04 November 2022 (age 32) Politics

What environmentalists can learn from the labour movement

Today, the lowest-paid group of education workers (represented by CUPE) are on strike in defiance of the Ontario government’s new law that prevents them from doing so legally. This is a big deal, and I applaud everyone who’s able to show up and picket the offices of MPPs.

Unionized workers in Canada are only allowed to strike when their contract expires and they can’t reach an agreement during a collective bargaining process. (For more about why these rules exist, check out this 2018 episode of the Sandy and Nora Talk Politics podcast)

In recent years, some public-sector unions have exercised their right to strike when contract negotiations broke down. Postal workers did a series of rotating strikes in 2018. Longshoremen working at the Port of Montreal stopped working overtime and weekends, before threatening a general strike in 2021. In both cases, the Liberal federal government passed laws forcing them back to work. These types of laws can be challenged in court after the fact, like B.C. hospital workers did in the mid-2000s. The supreme court eventually found that the government’s back-to-work legislation was unconstitutional, as it infringed on the right to freedom of association, and the right to free collective bargaining.

So this week, Ontario’s Conservative government decided to bypass all of that. Rather than continuing negotiations or going into third-party arbitration, the government passed a law that unilaterally dictates the terms of the new contract for these workers. It prevents them from striking legally, and — crucially — includes the notwithstanding clause to prevent this legislation from being challenged in court. In one fell swoop, they closed all the legal avenues for education workers to keep fighting for a fair deal.

This move could have paralyzed the union. They could have thrown up their hands, despondent, and had a press conference about how mean the government is. Then they could have gone back to work, accepting whatever crumbs the government offered.

But it makes sense that they’re mad as hell and have gone on strike anyway, indefinitely. At the end of the day, workers’ power comes from their ability to withdraw their labour. This government may have pulled the rug out from the collective bargaining process, but they can’t take away that power. Now workers are using the only tool they have left: go on strike, support one another, and refuse to play the government’s game on their terms.

There are important lessons for environmentalists and smart growth advocates when we look at the actions of CUPE workers this week. We’re reeling from the announcement of Bill 23, which would remove protections for tenants, kneecap the ability of Inclusionary Zoning to provide affordable housing, push conservation authorities to turn over protected land for housing development, and completely wipe away regional planning authority in regions like Waterloo.

I’ve spent the last five years working with groups like Hold The Line WR, Grand River Environmental Network, and 50x30WR to build up public support in Waterloo Region for policies that protect the countryside, and that encourage more density and mixed-use neighbourhoods in our urban centres. Our efforts mean that the countryside line is something most candidates in the 2022 election knew about and promised to protect, whereas in 2018 many of them were hearing about it for the first time.

Over the last year, the region has successfully defended its growth plan against suburban developers who bought rural land on the edge of town and want to continue sprawling outward. We created a framework for 15-minute communities that reduce our dependence on cars. We had a plan for new “missing middle” housing in existing neighbourhoods.

And then the Ontario government blew it all up with Bill 23.

The bill would remove planning authority from the Region of Waterloo, meaning that each of the three cities and four townships now have to make their own growth plans from scratch. All of the work that community groups and staff have done over the last several years goes up in smoke.

Or does it?

While I understand that volunteer advocacy groups are burned out and stretched thin, we have an incredible wealth of knowledge and relationships and successful outcomes that resulted in the Regional Official Plan. Just because the Ontario government had nixed that document, doesn’t mean our communities need to stop cooperating.
Bill 23 also doesn’t mean that we stop living in a connected rural-urban region that shares the same groundwater resources or transportation networks or housing market.

The Ontario government wants to pit communities against one another and encourage sprawl at the cost of our shared resources. We can be smarter than that. We can choose to keep the targets of the Regional Official Plan as a guiding document for each local municipality, and work together the way our region has always done.

And when it comes to building much-needed housing within our existing built-up areas, we can be more ambitious than the province. Just because the rules allow 2 and 3 units on any lot, that doesn’t mean we can’t go further, like allowing small apartments in all neighbourhoods, and remove parking requirements in transit-accessible areas.

The tightening of rules around affordability also means that cities have to step up in new ways. If the Ontario government is limiting our ability to regulate the private market for affordable housing, then we need to use public land to set the bar higher on properties that we control.

Like the CUPE workers, we could throw up our hands and accept defeat. Or we could continue building the kind of future that we want to see, use the power we have, and defy the government’s attempts to impose their agenda.

Sam Nabi

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