By Linda Rose-Krasnor, BUFA President
As is clearly evident from media reports, Ontario and public school teachers are in serious conflict over Bill 115, which became law in September, 2012. Bill 115 imposes contracts on non-Catholic elementary (Elementary Teachers Federation; ETFO) and high school teachers (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation; OSSTF) unions and takes away their right to strike and bargain collectively with local school boards. It even contains a provision that prevents any condition of imposed collective agreements or contracts to be “questioned or reviewed” in any court or arbitration proceeding, including challenges based on the Human Rights Code or Constitutional validity. This conflict between the teachers and Provincial government is likely to escalate in the coming months and may well expand to include workers in the broader public sector, including university faculty. At present, however, teachers are the vanguard in a fight to protect these fundamental labour rights in Ontario. They need the support of others.
This fight is important to us at the level of our individual work and personal life. Many of the benefits and protections that we enjoy are a direct result of some hard bargaining between BUFA, as a collective, and the administration. These include compulsory arbitration to resolve grievances, supplemental income during pregnancy/parental leave, limits on courses taught by sessional instructors, our two-course maximum teaching load, and layoff protection, to name just a few. Collective bargaining was the force that moved our salaries from the second lowest in the province to the median, and enabled us to maintain our salaries at that level over subsequent negotiations. Academic freedom and tenure, which some of us now may take for granted, are protected only through our Collective Agreement.
Collective bargaining and the right to strike are important to society more generally, as well as to us personally. Historically, these processes were introduced to provide an orderly, peaceful, and fair way for workers and employers to resolve their differences and conflicts. Collective bargaining and withdrawal of labour were tools that workers needed, and still need, to balance the greater resources and power of employers. This has been long been recognized in Canadian labour law and is further demonstrated by the Canadian government’s signing of Convention 87 of the International Labour Organization, an agency of the UN. Further, collective bargaining has been considered to be a Charter right in Canada, encompassed under the Charter’s right of assembly. The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a judgment consistent with this view in its BC Health Services ruling (Health Services and Support – Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association v. British Columbia 2007 2 SCR 391), although a subsequent decision (Ontario (Attorney General) v. Fraser, 2011 SCC 20) has suggested a narrower application of the Charter to collective bargaining (Fudge, 2012).
On the BUFA website (seanc129.sg-host.com), you will find information about several activities that are being held this month in support of collective bargaining. These events have been organized by a variety of organizations, including BUFA, OSSTF and the Ontario Federation of Labour. Over the next few months, you will be receiving notices of more opportunities to participate, as well as educational materials on relevant issues (e.g., the paradoxical effects of austerity budgets). We will make space on our website for you to comment on these issues and on our activities.
We need to make our voices heard loudly on this issue, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the teachers’ specific negotiating goals. It is the collective bargaining process that needs protection. As Steven Barrett, Senior Partner at Sack, Goldblatt, & Mitchell, explained at a recent OCUFA Conference, Bill 115 could be viewed as a warning shot that the Ontario government “has fired across the bow” of the labour movement (actually, it was more of a shot into the bow…). The specters of the Respecting Collective Bargaining Act, left in limbo when the Legislature was prorogued, and Right to Work (for less) legislation supported by Mr. Hudak, will be given increased substance should there be only tepid resistance to Bill 115. The federal government, as well as provincial governments from across Canada, will be watching how the Ontario labour movement and the public respond to this challenge to our basic rights to control our own labour and bargain collectively.
Fudge, J. (2012). Constitutional Rights, Collective Bargaining and the Supreme Court of Canada: Retreat and Reversal in the Fraser Case. Industrial Law Journal, 41(1), 1-29.