By Ryan Kelly
A friend of mine with decades of bargaining experience once told me, “No one has ever sat down to a bargaining table and had management say: ‘Sounds good! We have enough money to cover all of that.’” There are many nuances to negotiations, many ingrained in the processes as described in the Ontario Labour Relations Act. Negotiations are as much art as they are science and, optimally, both sides should feel satisfied with the outcome. What is certain is: 1. Everything in our collective agreements has been fought for and won through good faith practices, and 2. Historically, in Canada, union activity has resulted in improved standards for all workers. This last point is richly illustrated by unionized workers’ access to improved wages, pensions, and benefits. Enter Bill 115, new Ontario legislation that strips education workers’ rights to all of the above compensations and much, much more.
On September 11th, 2012, after the OSSTF & ETFO refused a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ concession package from the government, the minority Liberal government in Ontario brought forward the “Putting Students First Act”. After just over four hours of debate and voting, and with the support of the Progressive Conservative Party, Bill 115 was enacted into law. It is overwhelmingly argued in the media that the purpose of this bill is to impose a two year wage freeze on teachers. This is but a small percentage of the truth regarding its potential effects on education workers. Bill 115 is a remarkable assault on the very processes that have defined employee – employer relations in Ontario. Before a strike vote was taken (a necessary step in the collective bargaining process), Bill 115 bestowed the right on the Minister of Education to declare any strike action illegal. Contrary to these sweeping powers, the Supreme Court of Canada has clearly ruled that collective bargaining is indentured in our Freedom of Association. In 2007, the government of British Columbia enacted to law Bill 29, which made exhaustive changes to B.C. health worker collective agreements. These changes undermined the very essence of a union, including assurances of good faith practices regarding disclosure, safety, reasonable job security, and fairness in hiring. In defence of these rights, the Supreme Court ruled that the “…Charter freedom of association to include a right to freedom from substantial interference with collective bargaining. Consequently, governments no longer have unlimited ability to legislatively remove matters from collective bargaining or to legislate collective agreement terms.” The Minister of Education is confident that the courts will see it differently in these times of extraordinary fiscal restraint.
Each region’s board of education is legally defined as the employer in each district. Although the purse-strings are controlled by the provincial government, each board and employee group representative has continued to work out a mutually acceptable agreement that defines the relationship unique to their district. Bill 115 further prohibits education workers’ rights by bestowing on the Minister the ability to veto any contract collectively agreed upon by the board and union. Additionally, employees are prohibited from pursuing action in opposition to any unilateral edict from the Minister that contravenes the Employee Standard’s Act, the Legislation Act, the Labour Relations Act, the Pay Equity Act, and the Human Right’s Code. When the government hired a group of bankruptcy and insolvency lawyers to be their spokespeople at the “Provincial Discussion Table,” it was evident that this departure from process would result in legislation. Few could have imagined something as entirely Draconian as what we now see. This cannot be more thinly veiled as fiscal restraint and ideology. Rather, it is the product of extreme contempt and the very worst of political maneuvering.
Frank Lloyd Wright wrote: “If capitalism is fair then unionism must be. If men have a right to capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men to capitalize their labor.” The implications of this legislation will upset this balance, a balance that has enabled the broader labour movement the powers to continue to improve the rights of all workers, province–wide. As a result, this is a fight far from being limited to education workers. This is a fight that challenges our identities as Canadians, our culture, and our protections, earned through the fights of those that have sought a better life for each successive generation.