How a school strike in Ontario could affect the federal election

As hard as Ontario Premier Doug Ford is trying to stay out of the federal election campaign, the provincial political climate is threatening to drag him back into the spotlight in a big way.

That’s because some 55,000 education workers in Ontario are poised to strike on Monday if they do not reach a contract deal by then. Such a strike has the potential to shut down classes for many of the two million students in the school system.

Even though education is a provincial issue, federal Conservatives are worried about the potential impact of a strike on their political hopes in Ontario, particularly in swing ridings around Toronto, because they keep hearing from voters at the doors that Ford’s record makes them reluctant to vote for Andrew Scheer.

A school strike under Ford’s government wouldn’t help Scheer in any way.

The strike notice came from CUPE, which represents janitors, clerical staff and educational assistants in 90 per cent of Ontario’s school boards. Some of those boards are already warning parents to make alternate child-care arrangements, and at least one district says it will definitely close schools on Monday should the strike begin.

Although Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce declined to speculate on what’s behind the timing of the strike notice, Conservatives active in both the federal and Ontario parties say privately they are convinced it has everything to do with the election campaign.

They believe at the very least the union is trying to leverage the election — and the Ford government’s fear of how a strike could hurt the federal party — to get a better deal. These Conservatives also wonder if there’s an even bigger political play going on: an attempt to weaken Scheer’s chances by forcing Ford back into the public eye.

Ford has been keeping a low profile for weeks, insisting he’s too busy governing to get involved in the campaign. It’s a sharp change of tone from the past year when he took many opportunities to swipe at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. But federal Conservatives admit an outspoken Ford is no longer of political advantage to their party.

The federal Liberals clearly agree and want to exploit this, which is why Trudeau keeps blatantly aiming to link Scheer to Ford in the minds of voters in Ontario and beyond.

If there is a strike on Monday, the Ford government would have two options:

  • Recall Queen’s Park from its lengthy adjournment to bring in back-to-work legislation.
  • Let the strike continue.

If the government chooses legislation, Ford’s party would have to face question period, putting a media spotlight on the polarizing premier, if he attends the sessions.

If the government chooses to let the strike go on, there’s a chance that public opinion would not favour the union as parents scramble to figure out what to do with their children all day. There’s equally a chance that public opinion turns squarely against Ford. Statistics provided by the union (and not disputed by the government) suggest their members earn on average $38,000 a year — not the sort of salary that lends itself to accusations that the workers are greedy.

There’s still time to stave off a strike. The two sides have agreed to go back to bargaining table Friday afternoon and to negotiate through the weekend if necessary.

Lecce said the parties were close to a deal when talks broke off last weekend. But with the political stakes as high as they are right now, anything could happen.

I asked the union leaders in their news conference Wednesday whether the timing of their strike notice was connected with the election campaign. They didn’t deny it.

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