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Upcoming collective bargaining may test new Liberal strategy

The Ontario Liberal government's brand was built on creating social consensus after the harsh discord of the previous Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government.  That worked well for the Liberals until this past few months when they moved to crush free collective bargaining and unilaterally impose not just a wage freeze but also benefit concessions on teachers and other school board workers.

That attack on free collective bargaining, run apparently by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, was disastrous for the Liberals.  It was completely contrary to their brand and what they had stood for.  They are now a distant third in the polls, with a miserable 20% support.   Prior to this attack, they moved within the 35% to 27% range during 2012, tagging in at over 30% in August.  The major beneficiary of the Liberal decline has been the NDP, who are now tracking close to the PCs.

The Liberal decline also destroyed their bargaining power in the legislature with the PCs and the NDP.  After supporting the Liberals in their attack on school board bargaining, the PCs simply let the Liberal proposal to attack bargaining in the broader public sector languish -- while labour anger at the Liberals deepened.

Why, after all, would the PCs want the Liberal pain to end any time soon?  (And prop up a loser to boot?)

Now, out of the ashes of Duncan's strategy, Premier McGuinty wants to try a different tack -- a  new deal with labour.  How much luck a lame duck premier might have crafting a deal  with a variety of union partners with a variety of interests is pretty questionable.  In CUPE, the members in local unions decide on contracts.

In the normal course of events, however, there are also some major public sector contracts coming due.  

In November, OPSEU was scheduled to begin bargaining for 40,700 provincial public servants.  This is a major deal and clearly one to watch.   The Star reports today, that the OPSEU president met with the Government Services minister Wednesday.  OPSEU also has its 5,500 LCBO members up a few months later. 

Other major OPSEU groups have already settled.  Notably, 10,500 OPSEU college professors have just ratified a freely negotiated contract -- without the damage the Liberals are inflicting on school board contracts.

The Society, representing 3,900 engineers at Ontario Power Generation, will also see their contract expire at the end of December.   They too may do better.

The Liberal attacks on free collective bargaining were run  by politics -- not economic need.  The deficit has fallen much faster than they projected and, in any case, most freely negotiated settlements are quite modest.

The question is -- now that it is apparent the attack does not work politically for the Liberals, can they find a way to ditch their attack on collective bargaining and re-brand as a party of social consensus?  With a lame duck leader and a party in crisis, it would be wise to make plans that they won't.   

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