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A labour renaissance? This is Laura Walton's plan to take it to the next level
Plus: tracking Liberal cash canisters, Dumont's late debut, Lysyk's hot Greenbelt audit incoming, QEII at the Park, bye Bucci and more shuffle buzz
Laura Walton says she's a fighter — and with the labour movement on the cusp of a "renaissance," she's planning to take her fight to the next level.
"I come from a long line of workers who fought to make a difference," the Belleville native says. "I'm starting to learn more and more just how deep those roots are within us."
Her father was a principal who hit the picket line when Mike Harris' government expelled school administrators from teachers unions. Her mother organized visiting nurses. Her great grandmother gathered signatures to ensure girls in rural neighborhoods could access schools.
It's been a hectic year for Walton — the head of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions. What started as good ol' bargaining turned into an unprecedented revolt against the Ford government's use of the notwithstanding clause to block education workers from walking off the job last November.
Walton became the face of that fight.
The situation escalated. "The government called me into a meeting and they had two piles of paper," she says, describing the disputed legislation and the imposed collective agreement. "It was a shock that the government overplayed their hand — but I think they underestimated the power of workers," Walton gabs.
As labour leaders huddled in downtown Toronto, on the cusp of announcing an imminent general strike that would shut down the province beyond the classroom, the Tories backtracked. "As a gesture of good faith, our government is willing to rescind the legislation," Ford said in a presser that caught labour leaders off guard. In response, Walton, with the backdrop of an array of senior unionists, agreed to return to the bargaining table.
Ten days later, it was back to point A. The union served notice of a plan to strike after bargaining broke down, with Education Minister Stephen Lecce calling it "disappointing." At the eleventh hour, the union and the Tories struck a deal, averting a strike and resulting in hourly wage boosts for education workers.
It was an emotional stretch for Walton — but the start of something bigger.
"This one was just really emotional because I knew how hard people had fought," she says, her voice cracking. On one call with union members outlining the agreement with the government and urging workers to vote in favour, Walton was visibly shaken, as described by one source. "I knew how hard all of those workers were fighting," she hearkens back. "They had really put themselves out on the line for this. There just comes a time where you realize that this is the best that you can get because you also have to protect them."
"I'm not going to say that the rebirth of the labour movement started in November but part of the origin story of where I think the labour movement is moving," Walton says. To that end, she's seeking the leadership of Canada's largest labour federation — the Ontario Federation of Labour. "It's about giving back to the same people who showed up for us," she adds.
As a member of "Team Ignite," the only slate in the race, the high profile shoo in won backing from several major labour unions, including CUPE Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.
Now, she's hit the road to win support ahead of November's vote.
We're set for an early afternoon Zoom interview to discuss her next big move. "I'm out meeting with folks here in London," she texts prior to our call, asking to delay. "Even better," we text back. Once she's settled in her hotel room and we connect, a candid Walton has a lot to say about her last battle — and what lies ahead for her and the movement as a whole. Here are the highlights of our interview:
Why are you running for this job?
"The opportunity came up and I thought to myself that when we needed the labour movement, when education workers needed the labour movement, the labour movement was here for us. So, for me, it's about giving back to the same people who showed up for us. The other reason for me where I decided 'hey, this is something that I really want to do' is I believe that we are on the cusp of almost a renaissance for the labour movement. We almost have this rebirth of the Robber Barons — the Astor's, the Vanderbilt's. Now it's the Weston's, the Bezos', the Elon Musk's. You've got extremely wealthy folks and really, what came out of that era was a very, very strong labour movement. But it takes people believing in the labour movement and being willing to step outside the box of what we've always known. So, it was something that I was like 'I want to be part of this.' I want to, with our team, bring Ontario labour, whether you're unionized or not unionized, into the next phase, which I think is happening naturally."
You mention a "renaissance." How do you capitalize on it?
"I think it always bodes well to remember your past but it also bodes well to focus on your future. We're seeing it right now. You do not capitalize on that renaissance by trying to cut each other down, but rather, building on the backs of each other. So, there was our fight in the fall which led the way to the nurses getting a great deal at their arbitration, which then sets the stage for the next group of workers. Working in that united front is how you capitalize on it. Right? People are recognizing that the reason we have inflation is because of corporations having excessive amounts of profit. People are already starting to get a little bit angry and I think we need to really focus that anger on who it needs to be focused on — it's not the worker who's bringing to your groceries that you need to be angry at or the clerk that is stocking those shelves, it's the corporations that are doing that. It's time that workers come together and recognize that the boss is making money off of our labour."
Tell me a bit more about your roots. How'd you enter the labour movement?
"Well, I started helping out with a neighborhood family that was catering. I realized that labour had value back then. They'd often say 'we're really short on people so we'll pay you an extra dollar if you would come and work.' I started to learn very quickly that labour had value. But I come from a long line of workers who fought to make a difference. My real push into the labour movement was in my own home local, where I found that things were not going very well. People were really frustrated and I was brave enough to have a voice. It's always been rooted for me in helping bringing people along and making sure that other voices were heard about the issues that we were dealing with."
Go on. It started at the local level, then you took it up.
"I actually worked in radio for a long time but it wasn't really the career for me. I went back to university and started working for the Montana's Corporation — I would train people on how to open Montana's restaurants. It was the birth of my daughter that I said 'I need to do something that's more stable rather than travelling all over the place.' I started working at the school board. I trained up to be an Educational Assistant (EA) and while my daughter was an infant, started working as an EA. I then found out that there was this thing called CUPE. To me, CUPE had been just this little local that we had. I had an opportunity to go to an event that was the OSBCC — the Ontario School Board Coordinated Bargaining Committee, the predecessor of the OSBCU. I was just enamored. I was enamored with the fact that there was a space where workers could come together, provincewide, to talk about their issues and build towards better.
I was the mobilizer for the round of bargaining that led to Bill 115. That was the first slap in the face that I got — when I realized that the government could come in and just interfere with free collective bargaining with a stroke of a pen. At the time, it took me aback because I don't think I had ever really considered that it could happen. From there, it really took off. I ended up becoming the vice chair and then the vice president. I then became the president. I think it was about six months after we served notice to bargain in 2019. That's when we saw Bill 124. It was where I went, 'wait a minute, we just dealt with this in Bill 115.' I remember saying to one of my colleagues that if the government can just interfere with our bargaining, what's the point of having a union? That's when we began organizing and using the tools to go out and talk to people and find out what they really need and bring them into the space."
Take me back to November — you were at the centre of a revolt against the Ford government's use of the notwithstanding clause. What happened?
"It's fun that we're doing this interview right now because this is something that we're doing in all of these different meetings across the province — taking people through a timeline of how in the heck did we even get here. We wanted to start bargaining right away. We felt it was important to have a stable school year. The government was not interested in bargaining with us whatsoever. In reflection, I can kind of see what their plan was because it did come to light. So, we started, we forced them. We really made sure we were out in public, talking about why it was important. Parents understood that. Parents were like 'they want to be at school in September but you're not bargaining with them. You're actually causing the problem.' Their response to that was 'CUPE just wants to strike.' We had no desire to strike. We wanted a deal. We requested conciliation at the end of August because we had spent the summer and there was just nothing. They wanted to talk conceptually about things and we're like 'no, we're burning daylight. Let's get this done.' We knew that there was going to be a problem, you could just tell. We'd been preparing people for what was going to happen from February, talking about what it is they needed and if we weren't able to achieve it at the bargaining table, what are they willing to do about it? And a lot of people would say to us, 'I'm willing to strike.' We said 'okay, well, what if they legislate you back? What do we do then?' That's when the conversation shifted to 'what does legislating us back look like and what is our response to it.' We worked really hard to get that strike vote, it was probably one of our proudest moments.
We then served notice to strike. The government called me into a meeting and they had two piles of paper. One pile of paper was a bill. They said 'if you do not withdraw your notice to strike, we are going to impose a collective agreement and remove your right' and it's going to use the notwithstanding clause. They had an entire collective agreement written, they unilaterally had it done. It was horrible. You could tell that was their route. They thought that they could just bully their way to a deal. I have never been so proud of education workers because we presented it to them and they said 'we're not we're not going to take that.'"
And the strike did happen.
As a union leader, it's a a risky move to proceed with a strike despite legislation deeming it illegal, no? Take me back to your thinking at the time.
"My thinking at the time was really about what's the best for folks going forward. What platform are we leaving for young workers if we had let that go through? I spent a lot of time doing research as we were building this campaign and I recall that the teachers actually won the right to strike by striking illegally — with families, with all of those things. It was no easier for them than it was for us. It was really important that we stand behind what we believe in, which is the ability of workers to freely negotiate their collective agreements and have the right to strike. That there should not be a single government that interferes with that free collective bargaining process."
You were on the verge of escalation before the situation cooled down. I recall reporting that there was a plan for a general strike. Tell me about that.
"Yeah, everybody was working on it. I think one of the things that I would say is that it's not like you put that toothpaste back in the tube, right? You don't start talking about something like that and then all of a sudden, the light switch comes off and everybody just goes back to bed.
There was this movement where workers — and I really want to say it was workers because leaders are still workers — looked at this saying this is a problem. This isn't just somebody else's collective agreement. This is really a problem. What do we do? I think what you saw heading into Monday was folks listening to workers and workers saying 'no, no, no.' I'm not going to say that the rebirth of the labour movement started in November but part of the origin story of where I think the labour movement is moving. I think it was a shock that the government overplayed their hand — but I think they underestimated the power of workers. When workers are backed into a corner, they're going to come out swinging. And that's what you saw. I think that was a pivotal moment."
I'm going to fast forward to when an eleventh hour deal was reached. How were you feeling at the time? It was a bit emotional for you, I hear.
"Yeah. God, yeah. It still is. It still is. I knew how hard all of those workers were fighting. They had really put themselves out on the line for this. There just comes a time where you realize that this is the best that you can get because you also have to protect them. As a leader, it's your job to take the hit so that they're protected. One of the things in the back of my mind was that we weren't ready to general strike the next day — it was still going to be a work in process. I had people who can't pay bills. That was hard because I still believe that workers deserve so much more than we got but I also recognize that this is more than we've ever gotten. It was a historic agreement. People will ask me all the time: 'you said it wasn't a good agreement.' Um, no, it isn't a good agreement. But I also remind people that the day that I say it's a good agreement is the day that I need to stop doing collective bargaining because that either means a) we went in too low or b) I've lost my will to fight. I don't think I've ever been happy with a collective agreement. This one was just really emotional because I knew how hard people had fought."
Did you feel like you turned your back on them?
"I never felt like I was turning my back on them. I am a worker. I'm never in front of workers. I'm with workers, shoulder to shoulder. I think I just knew that this would be hard and that after all that we had done, this government still does not respect workers. You see that time and time again. Although we won this war, there's so many other wars that we're going to have to fight in order to get this government to properly respect us."
I often hear people talk about the villainization of labour unions — not just in a political sense but in broader terms. Does that worry you?
"Ah. Well, you have to. I think it creates a really great narrative, right? But I think that unions also have a role to play. For far too long, we have been disconnected from workers and what the Ford government in particular has done is they have inserted themselves in between what they call the union and workers. We need to be reminding folks that unions are the workers, there is no special or separate entity. A union is as strong as their workers are. I think they have to vilify us because there are many times where we are like the unofficial Opposition to government. We are fighting for things that actually improve our society and that has been the history of the labour movement from the beginning of time. There isn't a single government that has handed anything to us freely. It all comes off of workers fighting. I think, from that perspective, they really, this government in particular, feel that they need to be diametrically opposed to us."
You say unions are disconnected from the workers. How so?
"I think Reaganomics caused a lot of it, when you saw that he fired all of the air traffic controllers. There was this cooling of the labour movement but there was a point where I think it became more like a business and less like the grassroots organizations that we are. What I'm seeing right now in every single union across the province is a real movement to connect with workers, to be in front of workers, to listen to workers, to centre workers in their fight. The union is the workers and we need to get back to those conversations, we need to get back to listening to each other. I think the pandemic helped because people were really angry, coming out. We're still not out of the pandemic but after the forced disengagement, it really forced me as a leader and many other leaders to think about how we do business.
What are your priorities going to be as president?
"My first priority is to get in there and talk to the workers. I think that we have the potential to be a leader in the labour movement, not just provincially but globally. It's going to require us talking to leaders wherever they are and talking to organic leaders, people who are not elected but are able to move workers along. For the last four weeks, that's what I've been doing. Getting out into the community, getting on the picket lines, talking to these workers and leaders. At the end of the day, the people that we represent, that we have the privilege of representing, they need to be leading the way. They need to be giving us guidance on where we need to go and then we need to be there to support them.
After the dispute in November, my phone was inundated with texts speculating that Laura Walton will run for political office. Any aspirations?
"I am a live in the moment kind of person. I never want to get so far ahead of myself that I cannot enjoy the moment that I am in. I don't know where the world is going to take me, I really don't. I do know that wherever I'm going to be, it's going to be with people alongside me, focusing on the needs of workers and communities, wherever I go."
I didn't hear a no. So, we may see you at Queen's Park in a few years?
"It's a question that somebody asked me when I was out canvassing for Melissa Coenraad in Kanata—Carleton. I said 'let me get my feet wet here.' I think there's some real value in working together, I don't think that everybody needs to jump into the political array. I think we need to have good folks in different places. But you know, wherever the wind takes me, it's gonna take me. I want to give the OFL the same commitment that I have been giving to the OSBCU. So, you know, this is where I am and we go from there."
Grit fundraising machines are in high gear — and fresh figures show Bonnie Crombie's war chest is dominating the race. That's according to Elections Ontario's latest disclosures of large pay ins from a single donor — which is typically underreported due to a two week lag between the donation being recorded and hitting the wire. Here's the cash count:
It's been a busy summer in Liberal land — and we've been chronicling it all. Catch up on our coverage of the Grit's leadership race — including the scoop on the voting sched and lengthy profiles of NES. Crombie. Hsu. Stay tuned for the remaining biogs and more hot content up until the big vote in December.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk's report into the Tories' Greenbelt land swap is set to drop tomorrow. The hot audit into the development plans — one that resulted in a brewing court battle to block two summons and Ford insisting that the investigation is "not within her scope" — will be Lysyk's last before her term expires in September.
"Will be a big day," texted one Liberal source. "The fact that it's happening in August is bad for the Opposition. No one cares right now."
How the day will unfold: Reporters will go under embargo three hours before Lysyk's report goes live at 11 am. NDPer Marit Stiles will meet with the press at noon and Green Mike Schreiner shortly after. Housing Minister Steve Clark is expected to react to the opus via a statement.
New messaging: In a new ad, the Ford government is boasting a focus on "building" — signaling the counter messaging to expect from the Tories tomorrow. "We have two choices. We can sit back and ignore Ontario's housing crisis or we can build more homes. Our government is choosing to build," tweeted Premier Ford.
AT THE PALACE
— The House is off for the summer. No committee meetings are scheduled.
— A statue of Queen Elizabeth II is coming to the Park — set to be placed on the west front lawn of the Pink Palace. "The government decided that it had to step in," Government House Leader Paul Calandra told the Star on the previously stalemated project. Catch up here.
— Edith Dumont is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pick to be Ontario's next Lieutenant Governor. Dumont — a special education teacher and school principal who served as the vice president of partnerships for the Université de l'Ontario français — will be the first Francophone to serve in the role.
"I know she will continue to serve her fellow Ontarians with distinction as Ontario’s new Lieutenant Governor," Trudeau said. "It is such a privilege to play a role in our democracy and most of all to represent the amazing citizens of this province," said outgoing Elizabeth Dowdeswell. "I look forward to working with her to build a brighter future for all Ontarians," Premier Doug Ford wrote.
Dumont's appointment comes three years after Dowdeswell's term was supposed to expire — which raised questions as to why Trudeau waited to name his pick. "They took their eye off ball," speculated one source, citing the hullabaloo around Julie Payette's resignation as Governor General.
What's next: More on Dumont's installation ceremony will drop "in due course."
— More shuffle buzz: Word is on the street that Premier Doug Ford could rejigger his frontbench in "three to four weeks, before September," according to one Tory source. Ford didn't say no when asked about a looming shuffle although the intricacies of a cabinet reboot are often finalized at last minute and kept under tight wrap by his team.
One theory: While rumour had it that the summer shuffle would go down in June, some believe that Ford was waiting for July's twin byelections to elevate either Gary Crawford or Sean Webster — or both — to cabinet.
Another Tory insider isn't having it. "My guess is now they wait and see what happens in Kitchener Centre first," they said. More on who could be on the move.
ON THE MOVE
Luca Bucci is out as the CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association. Bucci — a former Conservative staffer who served as chief of staff to Housing Minister Steve Clark — abruptly parted ways with the influential residential development lobbying group according to a letter to members from president Louie Zagordo.
Bucci's departure and new gig was submitted by NDPer Marit Stiles to the ethics watchdog as "additional evidence" of a tip off to developers on impending land swap plans. "Did Mr. Bucci or any other government official know about any of the greenbelt removals," Stiles pressed.
Former PC MPP Lindsay Park has joined Mack Lawyers in Durham Region. "I am bringing my passion for protecting seniors and families to my role leading their estate and trust law practice," Park said.
Heidi Reinhart is the new chair of iGaming Ontario. Reinhart — a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright— was awarded a King's Counsel status in July.
WHAT WE'RE READING
CTV NEWS: "Ontario spent $7B less than planned this year, FAO report finds" by Katherine DeClerq
THE STAR: "Justin Trudeau faces a future without Sophie as his partner in politics" by Susan Delacourt
THE TRILLIUM: "Ontario looking to regulate workplace heat stress and outdoor air quality" by Aidan Chamandy
NATIONAL POST: "News publishers, broadcasters ask Competition Bureau to stop Meta's news blocking" by Anja Karadeglija
Are you Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk? Housing Minster Steve Clark? A staffer who's read the report. Drop me a line to chat about tomorrow's big Greenbelt compte rendu — I'll keep you anon. Was this issue forwarded to you? Join the community of Queen's Park's biggest players and stay ahead of the game.